Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 LCD Video Projector 
Home Theater Front Projectors LCD Projectors
Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Wednesday, 01 August 2007

The 1080p projection market just got a lot more interesting, thanks to the arrival of Epson’s PowerLite Home Cinema 1080. While other big-name projection companies like Sony, Mitsubishi, and Panasonic have priced their entry-level 1080p projectors between $4,500 and $6,000, Epson is making a bold statement with the Home Cinema 1080, which costs just $2,999. Inherent skeptic that I am, my first thought when I see a product priced so aggressively is, what gives? Surely some big sacrifices must take place to reach that price point. Even on paper, I could tell that the Home Cinema 1080 doesn’t skimp in the features department, but how would its image quality measure up?

Over the past few years, I’ve closely followed the progression of Epson’s high-definition projector line. The first-generation PowerLite TW100, which cost $4,995 back in 2002, still serves as my primary living room display. While it renders generally clean, colorful HD and DVD images, it looks rather boxy, its fan is excessively loud, and it doesn’t have a very good black level. Last year, I spent some time with the $2,499 Cinema 550 720p projector, which improved upon all of the above issues, but was a bit soft and had some color uniformity issues. Compared with the Cinema 550, the new Home Cinema 1080 boasts a similar aesthetic and many of the same ergonomic features and picture adjustments. Its size is comparable to other entry-level 1080p projectors, but its rounded cabinet and white pearlescent finish give it a bit more style. The backlit remote control has all of the necessary buttons, including dedicated source buttons, to take you directly to a desired input. Several important controls (power, source, menu, aspect and the directional keypad) are also located on the projector’s top panel. As for connections, the Home Cinema 1080 features one HDMI, component video, RGB (D-sub 15-pin), S-video and composite video input, plus D/SCART, RS-232 and 12-volt trigger connectors. That HDMI input utilizes the newest HDMI spec, version 1.3, which (among other things) doubles HDMI’s potential bandwidth to 340 Megahertz and supports the new Deep Color and xvYCC enhanced color specs.

The physical set-up process was quite simple. The Home Cinema 1080 allows for tabletop or ceiling placement and front or rear projection. I chose a front-projected image from my 18-inch-high coffee table and was able to center the image on my screen in about a minute, thanks to the full complement of ergonomic tools at my disposal. Most valuable are the 47-degree horizontal and 96-degree vertical lens shift, which help accommodate off-center placement. The projector also has adjustable feet, a 2.1x zoom and a manual focus ring; the remote’s Pattern button throws up an image that assists both with positioning and focus. The projector’s throw distance is almost identical to my TW100; filling my 67-inch-diagonal screen required a distance of 80 inches. The owner’s manual includes a thorough chart of estimated projection distances and screen sizes for both 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.

Speaking of aspect ratios, the Home Cinema 1080 offers five of them: Auto, Normal, Full, Zoom and Wide. As it names suggests, the Auto setting automatically adjusts the aspect ratio to suit the source; according to the manual, this option is available for HDMI, S-video, composite and 480i/480p component video signals, but it was blacked out with every signal type I fed it. However, the Normal setting correctly sizes 4:3 and 16:9 signals, rendering the Auto mode unnecessary. The onscreen menu includes options to move the entire image up, down, left or right, and to adjust the output scaling to show 92, 94, 96, 98 or 100 percent of the image. The 100 percent option will show 1920 x 1080 content pixel for pixel, while the cropped options are helpful if you need to eliminate visible noise around the edges of your cable or satellite signal.

Epson has also been generous in terms of picture adjustments. You can choose from six preset color modes (Dynamic, Living Room, Natural, Theatre, Theatre Black 1 and Theatre Black 2) and then fine-tune color, light output and sharpness. I went with the Theatre Black 2 mode for nighttime viewing and the Living Room mode for daytime viewing. The Dynamic mode looks the brightest, but colors and color temperature are the least accurate in this mode, and it denies you access to some picture adjustments. After choosing a preset mode, you can fine-tune the color using the basic color and tint controls, incremental color-temperature adjustment from 5,000 to 10,000 Kelvin, and a skin-tone control that counter-balances the color temperature by adding more red or green. Advanced users and professional calibrators will appreciate that you can directly access the RGB offset and gain controls to calibrate the display’s color temperature. You also have six gamma options and can precisely tweak the hue and saturation of red, green, blue, cyan, magenta and yellow.

The projector features an auto iris that automatically adjusts light output to suit the source. This has become a common feature for LCD and LCOS projectors, as it can substantially improve contrast ratio. It certainly makes a difference here, so I recommend you use it. If you’re paying very close attention, you will sometimes see the picture’s brightness shift, and the projector makes a soft clicking sound when the iris adjusts, something you’re not likely to hear when your source’s audio is playing. The Home Cinema 1080 also has high and low lamp settings, basic brightness and contrast controls, the ability to set a black level of 0 or 7.5 IRE, a feature called Super White to improve white detail, and an HDMI Video Range option to match the projector to your video source’s HDMI output. Processing options include a Film/Auto mode, a Video mode and an off setting (if you’re using an external scaler), plus a rather unusual feature, the ability to adjust motion detection to accommodate faster or slower signals (this doesn’t apply to the HDMI input). One final feature that proves especially important is the inclusion of both standard and advanced sharpness controls. The standard control gives you a basic 10-step adjustment, while the advanced menu contains settings for thin/thick line enhancement and vertical/horizontal line enhancement.

After you’ve utilized all of the above controls to tailor the Home Cinema 1080’s picture quality to your liking, the projector is kind enough to remember the settings for you. It automatically recalls the last set of picture parameters for each signal type, even within the same input. There are also 10 memory settings at your disposal to store different parameters for different signal types and viewing environments. Having so many picture controls at your disposal can be a great thing, but it can also be somewhat overwhelming, with the potential to do more harm than good. With the money you save when buying this particular projector, you might want to consider hiring an ISF certified calibrator to set up the Home Cinema 1080 for you.

Movies And Television
As I settled in for my first evening with the Home Cinema 1080, I had to take a moment to enjoy the silence of this projector. In the Theatre Black 2 mode, the Home Cinema 1080’s fan is almost inaudible. It grows louder as the color modes get brighter; however, even at its loudest, the fan is much quieter than that of my first-generation TW100. Fan noise may not seem like a big deal, but it can be extremely distracting if the projector is located anywhere near the seating area. There’s nothing worse than having the subtle sound cues of your several-thousand-dollar speaker system drowned out by a projector that sounds like a hair dryer running in the background.

The next thing to grab my attention was just how much better the Home Cinema 1080’s black level is, compared with previous Epson models and other budget projectors. On my 67-inch screen, in the darkest Theatre Black 2 mode, this projector measured 0.002 foot-lamberts with an all-black test pattern; it would likely measure even better on a larger screen. I immediately reached for one of my new favorite black-level demos: the opening chapters of the V for Vendetta HD DVD (Warner Home Video), in which we first meet V and Evie as they first meet each other on a dark night. The projector’s good black level gave the entire image a wonderful depth and richness, and it did a very good job rendering the varying shades and textures of black within V’s coat and the surrounding skyline.

The Batman Begins HD DVD (Warner Home Video) is another fine transfer that presents some nice challenges for a display, often switching between dark and bright scenes. The Home Cinema 1080 ably captured the detail within dark backgrounds, yet had enough light output that colors and whites still had some pop in brighter scenes. On my smaller screen, the Home Cinema 1080 measured a respectable 16.85 ft-L of light output in the Theatre Black 2 mode, with the auto iris on. That gives the projector a relatively good reported overall contrast ratio of 8425:1, much better than previous Epson models, but lower than the absurd contrast numbers you might see on other projectors’ spec sheets. Real-world measurements made with the best tools by the best calibrators in the world on top of the line, $30,000 video projectors result in far lower contrast numbers (with highs of 200:1), so it is important to not over-value an 8500:1 measurement from a $3,000 projector. Obviously, home theater projectors are designed for light-controlled environments; even in a moderately lit room, they usually lack the light output to produce a well-saturated image. In its brighter color modes, this projector had enough light output to watch HDTV content during the day, particularly brighter sporting events – with my blinds shut, of course. Black level and black detail are lost in these brighter modes, though, so I wouldn’t try to watch a darker DVD like The Prestige (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) during the day.

The projector’s good black level helps colors look rich and vibrant in a darkened room. Color accuracy isn’t spot-on, but neither is it so far off the mark as to be problematic. As was the case with the Cinema 550, greens are somewhat oversaturated, which gives the image a slightly greenish-blue bent. The green grass in ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, as well in the opening of chapter three in Kill Bill Volume 1 (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), was a bit too vibrant. In contrast, the reds in chapter five of the Phantom of the Opera HD DVD (Warner Home Video) looked wonderfully deep, without veering off toward magenta or orange. The color temperature, at the 6500 K setting, was generally on target, except with the darkest content. In CBS’s 1080i broadcast of Jericho and in the Batman Begins HD DVD, skin tones took on a reddish hue in dark scenes but looked natural throughout the rest of the spectrum. You may want to experiment with the color temperature and skin-tone controls to find the color combination that best suits your taste.
One quality I’ve appreciated about every Epson projector I’ve seen is their bit depth, or how many colors the display can reproduce. Even though we’re talking color, we evaluate bit depth by looking at how many shades of gray a display can render; I use the white-to-dark ramp in title 18, chapter 7 of Video Essentials (DVD International). The smoother the transition from white to black, the more colors the display can reproduce. The more colors it reproduces, the less digital it looks, meaning you won’t see a lot of digital noise and dithering effects in grays and solid colors. Through both the component video and HDMI inputs, this projector produces a smooth white-to-black ramp, and it did a great job with my DVD test scenes, smoothly rendering the shadow-filled faces from Lost: The Complete Second Season (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) and allowing the smoke that hangs over chapter 10 of Ladder 49 (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) to actually look like smoke. A 1080p display can also reveal more high-frequency noise in a signal, but the Home Cinema 1080 consistently rendered a clean, noise-free HDTV image.

Last but not least is the projector’s processing and de-interlacing ability. The Home Cinema 1080 correctly de-interlaces 1080i content, which means it correctly combines the fields when producing the 1080p signal. In the Film/Auto mode, it picked up the 3:2 film cadence in my 480i and 1080i test discs. With the standard-def Gladiator DVD (DreamWorks Home Entertainment), it ably handled the flyover in chapter 12, producing only a little shimmer in the rooftops and Coliseum archways. The HQV HD DVD test disc includes a pan of an empty stadium that can be filled with moiré patterns if a display doesn’t pick up 3:2 with 1080i content; this projector did an excellent job, creating only a hint of shimmer in the upper decks. The projector does accept 1080p through the HDMI input, but its de-interlacing is good enough that you don’t have to feed it a 1080p signal if you purchased a first-generation high-def player that only outputs 1080i. The projector’s video-based processing is average at best; I saw some jaggies in TNT’s 1080i NBA playoff coverage, as well as video-based 480i SDTV and DVD content.

The Downside
The Home Cinema 1080’s positive attributes combine to produce a very attractive high-definition picture, but a couple of issues differentiate its performance from that of a higher-end 1080p projector. The first of these is in the detail department. I was generally satisfied with this projector’s detail with HDTV and HD DVD sources. Out of the box, at the default sharpness setting, the projector was able to render the finest horizontal and vertical lines in my HQV HD DVD test pattern, although the lines were a little dimmer than those of the most detailed projectors I’ve seen. Unfortunately, I also noticed a good deal of edge enhancement, through both the component and HDMI inputs. Edge enhancement adds false detail to an image, artificially sharpening edges and introducing unwanted information to the picture. It’s one of those traits that video reviewers and enthusiasts find bothersome, but the average viewer often doesn’t notice it and sometimes even prefers it. I was able to get rid of most of the edge enhancement by turning down the Epson’s standard sharpness control, but the result was a noticeable drop in detail, especially when moving from -4 to -5. At this point, the advanced sharpness controls came in handy, allowing me to more precisely address the issue, but loss of fine detail was still a concern at the lower settings. If you mate the Epson with a larger screen, this issue will be more obvious than it was on my screen, so you’ll want to experiment with the sharpness controls to find a happy medium between detail and edge enhancement.

Another potential concern with a larger screen is the Home Cinema 1080’s light output. As I said, I was content with the projector’s brightness and contrast ratio on my modest 67-inch diagonal screen, but those numbers will decrease as your screen size increases. Epson says this projector is capable of a screen size up to 120 inches, but the image will get much dimmer at that size, mandating that you only use the projector in a completely dark room. With these issues in mind, I’d say the Home Cinema 1080 is best suited to a screen size of 80 inches or less. Hey, an 80-inch 1080p image for $2,999? Good luck finding that in a flat panel. Add $1,000 to $2,000 for a good screen, and you’re still getting a deal.

One final issue may have been specific to my A/V gear. The projector’s HDMI input would not sync with my Motorola BMC9012 cable box’s DVI output. I occasionally have minor sync problems when using this output with an HDMI-equipped display, but it’s been a long time since I didn’t get a picture at all. When I routed the DVI signal through my Geffen 1x3 HDMI distribution amplifier and then fed it into the projector, it worked fine. I’m not sure whether this has anything to do with the fact the projector uses the new HDMI v1.3 connection, but HDMI 1.3 is supposed to be backwards-compatible with DVI and older HDMI outputs.

All in all, the Home Cinema 1080 would be quite an impressive performer at twice its price. Given its aggressively low price of $2,999, it is an absolute steal that should lure large plasma clients to get a front video system instead. I expected Epson to make more sacrifices than they did, both in features and performance, but for the most part, they kept true to high-level video industry standards. The Home Cinema 1080 may lack some of the precision and robustness of a higher-end 1080p projector, but it certainly holds its own with those $4,500-$6,000 models I mentioned at the start. Whether you’re building a budget home theater room or simply want a big-screen 1080p display for your living room (and don’t wish to sell a kidney to go the flat-panel route), the Home Cinema 1080 is definitely worth your very, very serious consideration.
Manufacturer Epson
Model PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 LCD Video Projector
Reviewer Adrienne Maxwell
Chipset 3-Chip

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