NEC HT1100 DLP Video Projector 
Home Theater Front Projectors DLP Projectors
Written by Michael Levy   
Tuesday, 01 February 2005

Introduction
The home theater universe has been expanding geometrically ever since the video projector broke onto the scene, and it took another leap when digital projectors became available. The newer models gave us much higher brightness, easy installation and lower cost, but lagged behind on black level and smoothness of image. Since black level is crucial to a quality home theater display, the CRT projector remained the system of choice for affluent, tech-savvy enthusiasts. However, in the past year, digital video technology has advanced to the point that I decided to look for a digital replacement for the venerable CRT projector that has been heart and soul of my living room AV system.

About 10 years ago, I designed a custom 100-inch rear-projection system for my living room, using a lenticular-freznel (rear-oriented) screen, driven by a DWIN HD-500 CRT projector. Thousands of hours of use now calls for a replacement. Searching through the products that might fit the specification I was looking for, my interest was piqued by the NEC HT1100 DLP projector. All of its features and specifications fit my needs, including an exceptionally high (reported) contrast ratio of 3,500 to 1. So I requested one for review to see how it would compare.

NEC is a major Japanese manufacturer, catering to both the professional and consumer electronics industry. They pioneered the video projection market with fine CRT projectors and were among the first to adapt the Texas Instruments DLP imaging system. They are a major OEM source of projectors to the industry and you have probably already unknowingly watched one of their projectors create a video image. Industry insiders have long known of NEC as a state of the art manufacturer and many more consumers are becoming aware of NEC Visual Systems as they expand in the market.

The HT1100 is the top of the line of NEC’s home theater projectors and sports the 1024 x 768 Texas instruments chip. It has several useful features that improve image quality and flexibility. It accepts digital sources through a DVI and all forms of analog input, from composite to component and RGB, all at any of the presently used scan rates for video and computer, up to and including HD. It has an iris to improve black level, a two-level bulb to extend bulb life, image shift in the 16 x 9 mode, a three-dimensional keystone adjustment for placement flexibility, and is even offered with an optional anamorphic lens. With a contrast ratio of 3,500 to 1, it is among the best projectors in producing the ultimate in image dynamics, even on dimly lit scenes. With fan noise levels under 30 dbf, it is among the quieter projectors made, and with a list price of only $3,495, it is on paper an exceptional buy.

Product History
In the early 1980s, some of the more advanced home entertainment installation companies started selling professional video projectors to movie enthusiasts, spawning a new industry. The concept broke into the marketplace in the late 1970s with the Henry Kloss-inspired Advent and then the Kloss Novabeam. It matured significantly when the custom installation industry started using projectors made for professional use by manufacturers like Sony, Barco, and NEC, and it took another leap when these were coupled with the first Faroudja line doublers. By using the Laserdisc as the video source, high-quality movie theater-sized images were finally available to the home.

These were CRT projectors using three tubes (red, green, and blue), each coupled to its own lens system and then carefully hand-converged onto the screen. They processed analog signals into an analog light stream that covered a screen by scanning it, going from left to right and then tracing down the entire image. Properly aligned and calibrated, the state of the art of CRT projection still delivers the state-of-the art in video imaging. There are, though, a few not so minor inconveniences. Not only do CRT projectors have a low light output that wears down with use, but they also need regular recalibration by a trained professional, which to this day keeps me working all over the New York/New Jersey area. State-of-the-art CRT projectors run over $30,000 and need to be coupled to a good video processor for the best image quality. The cost, complexity and trained personnel needed to maintain the system limited the number of dealers and consumers willing to take the plunge into the real home theater. Then along came digital projectors. They changed the entire landscape of home theater.

All digital projectors work similarly. They chop the image up into hundreds of thousands or millions of points. Each point represents a square section of the image and defines that section by color and brightness. These sections are called pixels that, when put together and viewed from an appropriate distance, meld into a contiguous image. Digital projectors use an imaging chip where transistors are coupled to each pixel which variably filters the light from a bulb in real time on a pixel by pixel basis to create an image. There are two ways to do this, pass through or reflective, and several systems have been developed to do it, but they are all variations of two designs: liquid crystal-based designs and digital micromirror-based designs. LCD-based chips are used as pass-through devices, where liquid crystals variably filter light directed from a bulb through them, and as reflective devices in designs such as LCOS or DILA, where liquid crystals variably reflect the light that hits them.

Micromirror designs are based on the lightning-fast physical movement of tiny mirrors on a chip to vary the light reflected from them. While I am aware of the development of other micromirror designs, the Texas Instruments DLP is the only micromirror imaging chip presently used in home theater projectors. It is now the basis of many video projectors from a wide array of manufacturers around the world.

Unique Design
With many manufacturers building competitive DLP-based products, there are many good products and it is hard for one to stand out qualitatively. It was the unique combination of design features of the NEC HT1100 that brought it to my attention, and they are the reasons why this product deserves a rave review. The high contrast ratio gives you image dynamics that were previously only available on CRT-based systems. The excellent lens system maintains color convergence and focus at the outer edges of the image. The bulb and iris control are used to maximize contrast ratio while matching light output to the installation, and the anamorphic lens option gives the projector HD level vertical resolution for 16 x 9 screens. These features give it the image quality that distinguishes it as the top performer in its class.

Also, the throw distance is less than on most digital projectors and much closer to those of CRTs. This is an important feature for anyone looking to replace the projector in an older CRT-based installation. Many of those installations used 4 x 3 screens. The 4 x 3 imaging chip in this projector matches them, although it can also be used for 16 by 9 screens. If the CRT projector it replaces used seven-inch tubes, as most did, the image quality will be greatly improved in most parameters. While the resolution of 1024 x 768 matches up well with the resolution of seven-inch CRTs, the light output and gray scale linearity are of another level completely. This projector is at least three times as bright and tracks gray scale better than any seven-inch CRT I have ever tested.

With all of these advantages, the CRT would seem outgunned, but even my venerable seven-inch CRT will outperform a DLP in some parameters. Digital projectors have a through-the-screen-door look if you are close enough to see the pixels and the pixelization of the image creates some artifacts when small details shimmer between two pixels. The CRT can look much more like a film projected image, and its absolute black level still outdoes any digital projector. If you can live with the low light output and the constant need for calibration, it is the more pleasing image. Having said this, remember that we are comparing a $12,000 projector with one that lists for only $3,495.

Testing Movies and HDTV
I used several movies for reference in my recent review of the NEC 50-inch plasma. Here is a view of how they compared on the NEC HT1100.

In “Star Trek: Insurrection” (Paramount DVD), the opening chapter on the planet, which shows the villagers and children working and playing, jumps out vividly. The image dynamics enhance depth and make the backgrounds even more majestic. Intimate details are there, as are a multitude of hues, accurately and smoothly portrayed. The trees, the grass, the sky and mountains give you that feeling of being out on a beautiful sunny day.

The one-chip DLP projectors I have tested in the past have all exhibited one problem: scenes where deep black was needed were faded because the lowest level of light output was not black, but rather a very dark gray. That is, until I tested this unit. The black level of the NEC HT1100 is better than any projector anywhere near its price. It is at least equal to the black level of film, and much closer to that of a CRT. Movies are supposed to be viewed in darkness, where the true dynamics of a scene come through. The contrast ration of the NEC HT1100 creates a black level improvement over plasma screens, giving you all of the low-level detail. The scenes inside the caves and in outer space on “Insurrection” were cast in velvet black, allowing the feeling of the vast vacuum of space and the hollowness of the caves to come through.

I have high praise for the quality of reproduction of “The Fifth Element” (Sony Home Entertainment) on the NEC 50-inch plasma. The dynamics of plasma displays make it hard for most projectors to compete. This projector is as eye-popping as any plasma, with a darker black level. While the NEC HT1100 has a slightly lower pixel count than the plasma, the difference in detail level was hardly evident, although it could be seen as some minor jittering of very small details. Still, the unique costumes, settings and camera work come across at least as well as the plasma.

In “The Fifth Element,” the NEC did an excellent job defining the detail of shades of blond and red in Milla Jovovich’s hair, and in Chapter 9, where you can see the cracks in the glass just before Jovovich’s character Leeloo breaks it. Chapter 10 can give you acrophobia with its depth of field as she looks down just before jumping off the ledge. The projector surpassed the image quality of the plasma on a much larger screen.

“Seven Years in Tibet” (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment) chilled me to the bone in the snowbound scenes. Here, the difference between a 50-inch screen and a 100-inch screen became more palpable. The difference in size gave power to the feeling of cold. The monastery scenes where the priests made their colored sand artworks still jumped out dynamically with color, but due to the size differential, a digital artifact could be seen occasionally when they were in motion.

“Raging Bull” (MGM/UA) is my favorite black-and-white test. The linearity of gray scale and color temperature are much more evident in black and white. The NEC exhibited no color temperature drift or gray scale flaws. It looked smooth and filmlike.

I viewed several movies and a few sporting events in high definition. While they were not quite as smooth as the CRT, and very small images broke down to their component pixels, the images were dazzling at the appropriate viewing distance. Individual floorboards were visible on the Madison Square Garden floor and you could recognize players’ faces in long shots. In “The Last Samurai” (Warner Home Video), individual hairs were clearly seen in Tom Cruise’s beard. Viewed from a distance, most of the digital artifacts were too small to be seen, and the overall effect was one of viewing film.

Calibration
Unlike most units I have tested, the gray scale was properly displayed, with all levels of gray visible at the factory settings. Also, the color temperature was quite close to 6,500K at that setting. The unit calibrated easily, but I must again point out that the fine adjustments for color temperature are available to the consumer. They should be on a serviceman’s menu and available only with a code. Allowing the user to adjust them only opens the door to discoloring the image.

My light output measurement was done at the reference color temperature of 6500K. Light output has become like horsepower for cars. Most people think the more the better. Because light output has become such a selling tool, manufacturers publish numbers that can only be achieved at the wrong color temperature. I did my tests at 6500K after calibration and in the linear operating range of the projector. Since this is how it should be used, it is the only relevant specification. Under these conditions, the unit measured 530 foot-lamberts in the high bulb mode, and 410 foot-lamberts in the low bulb mode. The truth is, you should match a projector’s light output to the screen’s size and reflectivity. That means that with a screen gain of 1.3, the NEC HT1100 can achieve the reference 10 ft-l on a 10-foot wide screen. I used the projector in the low bulb setting, with the iris slightly closed to match my screen for proper light output.

The Downside
First let me get over my usual rant on the remote control. Here we go again. I don’t think they could have made the remote less user-friendly. After the unit has been properly installed, there are really only three buttons that the user will need to use, source, power and aspect ratio. Two of these are problematic. The power button must be held down for several seconds to turn the projector off. This is done to prevent accidental shut-off of the projector. The problem is that, when you want to use a sequencing remote such as those offered by Universal Remote Control or Marantz, most of those remotes cannot maintain the IR command long enough to work. Also, you must hold the remote pointed at the projector until it responds. I recommend a change for the NEC to the system used by many other manufacturers, a double press of the power button, where the first press pulls up a box asking the user to press the button again to shut off the projector. The projector should also have a signal sensing power on option that would turn the projector on when sensing more than ten seconds of input signal, and turn the projector off when sensing more than one minute without any signal.

The aspect ratio button does not access aspect ratios directly, but is sequential instead. This is a minor flaw, but I would be much happier with direct access than having to search for the correct aspect ratio. These are not problems for those who have control systems like Crestron or AMX, because the NEC HT1100 accepts RS-232 commands and all functions are accessed directly.

While the unit does offer some image shifting ability in the 16 x 9 mode, it lacks a lens shift option, and full-sized 4 by 3 images must be angled correctly if you don’t want to use the keystone control. Using the Keystone control decreases detail level in order to achieve proper geometry. It is really a problem if you are using it in a rear-projection set-up as I do. Rear-projection screens need the projector placed at the center for even distribution of light. This is especially true for lenticular-freznel screens (the kind that have small ribbings vertically on the front of the screen). NEC could have used a simple design trick to make the NEC HD1100 convertible to a straight shoot projector. The problem would be solved if the front lens were removable and could be mounted in either of two positions, one for floor or ceiling mount and one for straight shoot. This design idea was used on the projectors made by the now-defunct Projectavision.

A pure white image has a slightly knurled look that is caused by minor light variations from point to point on the chip. It looks a little like dirt on the screen, but it is barely visible and is a very minor problem.

While the native resolution of this projector is relatively high, it is less than the minimum to be considered HD. That name cannot be applied to any imaging system with less than 1280 x 720 pixels in the 16 x 9 format. The NEC HT1100 s pixel count is only 1024 x 576 in the 16 x 9 format. While not usually evident, there are some telltale artifacts produced by the need to downscale HD images to this native resolution. Small images break down digitally. They evidence their component pixel structure, and some angular lines jitter as they move diagonally across the screen. The angular lines on a football field would sometimes show lighter and darker areas due to processing. I was not bothered by the artifacts unless I started looking for them. Using a higher-resolution chip would help, but it wouldn’t remove all of the artifacts, because there are always some digital artifacts at the detail limit and also because most HD material is recorded in the 1920 x 1080 format, with anywhere from 24 frames to 60 fields, and would have to be scaled down to the projector’s native resolution. Any conversion means digital scaling, and there usually are some residual artifacts caused by scaling. The only DLP chips capable of delivering a 1920 x 1080 native resolution are used in new state-of-the-art professional three-chip projectors made for the digital cinema. There are new single-chip projectors that have competitive contrast specifications and use the new 1280 x 720 HD three-chip units available from Texas Instruments, but they come at a hefty premium. The least expensive of these is twice the price of the NEC HT1100.

Conclusion
So, does the NEC HT1100 get to replace my CRT? Yes, for now. The overall image quality is better for my installation. While there are areas where the CRT still outperforms the NEC, considering the difference in cost and need for maintenance, its advantages now outweigh the areas where the CRT excels. The NEC HT1100 has the features and filmlike image quality that easily take it to the head of its class as a home theater projector.
Manufacturer NEC
Model HT1100 DLP Video Projector
Reviewer Michael Levy





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