Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment: video, audio, computing, and wireless, how these are coming together, and what's likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life.
Column #16 (Originally posted 12/10/01, updated 12/24/01)
Review of the Plus HE-3100 "Piano" Home Theater Projector
In last week’s column, I covered whether you can use business projectors for home theater. To continue on this topic, I am reviewing one of the first home theater projectors from a major manufacturer of business projectors – Plus. For this review to be useful to enthusiasts considering different projector options, I have used standard projector terms. For this review to be useful for anyone considering becoming an enthusiast, I have included a glossary of those terms, with links whenever the terms are used.
The Plus HE-3100 “Piano” is a book size projector available in five different colors. It is a DLP machine, but uses a four speed, six segment color wheel to reduce rainbow artifacts. Its DLP engine has a unique pixel array – 848x480 for widescreen material, and 800x600 for regular material. Many projectors have higher resolution, but 720x480 is the actual amount of information stored on a DVD, so if you watch a lot of DVDs, you’ll get everything that’s on the disc with no vertical scaling artifacts. Published contrast ratio specs are high (700:1), light output relatively low (450 lumens). Inputs include composite, S-video, component, and DVI; the first three accept only interlaced signals, an excellent chipset from DVDO provides scaling and line doubling. Plus is selling the product direct, and marketing the product online and through specialty home theater retailers (at this writing, precious few dealers had signed up).
The remarkable thing about the Piano is the picture quality with DVDs, and the relatively low $3000 cost. The Piano can create startling images up to about 7 feet wide. You might think that $3000 (plus screen, if you don’t have a nice clean wall to project on) would make this the perfect gift for someone considering a big screen TV. And you’d be right, sort of.
This is not an appropriate gift for a novice. I thought that since Plus was aiming this at the consumer market, they'd include a great quick-start guide, a manual written in plain English, and a video walking you through set up scenarios and every day usage. Having installed a RePlay, I know it can be done. (A RePlay is basically a complicated computer, but the instructions, video, and user interface make it easier to set up and use than a VCR.) The Piano’s quick start guide is OK, the manual isn't terrible, and there ain't no handholding video.
If you have any experience with projectors, what’s provided is certainly adequate. If you don’t, heaven help you – the throw distance chart alone would terrify my mother. Nowhere does it instruct you to change your DVD player settings to 16:9 mode. And it took me several hours before I figured out what mode to use with what kind of material (the manual does explain it. It just took me a while).
Still, for the enthusiast, this is much easier than customizing a business projector. Out of the box, make one change (set the gamma to "film" mode), and the picture is excellent.
I'm using a pull-down non-tensioned matte white 84" 4:3 screen (just under 6 feet wide). I originally wanted a larger screen; it turns out this is about as large as I'd go for this room/projector combo. Seating is 9' - 12' from the screen (L-shaped couch), if you're looking for it, you can see some pixel structure in bright scenes from about 10' back; beyond that you can't see any.
Inputs and Sources
All viewing was done first using DVDs through the S-Video, then using component video input from a Panasonic A-310 DVD player. In my testing, there was little difference between the two inputs - both were excellent. This goes counter to my experience with my RPTV, where the component video inputs offered noticeably better color saturation over S-video.
If you must use the composite input, use a good cable - I tried a generic cable from the DVD player and the picture was awful. I was finally brave enough to try analog cable through the RePlay via S-Video, and the picture is... really, really big. Overall, TV is extremely soft, with noticeable jaggies on diagonal objects (ex: hockey sticks). These scaling artifacts did not show up on DVD film-based material, or even DVD-based video sources. While it might be fun for a Super Bowl party, I do not recommend regular TV viewing through the Piano. There just isn't enough resolution in the source material to create a large sharp, artifact-free image. In addition, watching TV completely in the dark bothers me.
Despite this, I couldn't resist trying the new Nintendo GameCube at 84" across (using the optional S-video adapter) - and the image was surprisingly sharp and detailed. Could be fun for parties.
The only HDTV-capable input is DVI, and it would be downscaled to 480p – the same resolution as DVD. This may be a lot better than regular television, but it is by no means High Definition TV.
You can't watch it with the lights on. However, in a completely dark room, the image is incredibly bright (and this is on a matte white screen). There is extremely high contrast and super-deep-gray blacks with tremendous shadow detail. The resolution on computer animated anamorphic DVDs (Shrek, Toy Story 2) is astounding - the picture has lots of snap. On live action fare, you can easily tell how good the DVD transfer is.
You can do better than the default settings, especially in terms of contrast. Using guidelines from the Stereophile Guide To Home Theater magazine review (December 2001), I punched up contrast so high that the whites were blinding - I recommend following their directions only if you have a negative gain screen. I pulled things back a bit and tried tweaking the colors for better fidelity, and met with modest success.
The color fidelity through S-video inputs is pretty good. In Toy Story 2, Jesse has orange yarn hair and a reddish-orange hat. If the picture on the DVD slipcase is any indication, the shades are supposed to be similar. With the image projected by the Piano, you can tell that her hair is orange and the hat is red. However, the difference in color shades is quite subtle, and not as distinct as on my (CRT-based) RPTV.
I have noticed no line doubling artifacts - and I've looked for them. Titanic (widescreen letterbox DVD) with it's ship railings torture test looked excellent (though, as expected, it lacked detail compared to anamorphic DVDs).
I can't see any rainbows at all. I've tried. I've looked at bouncing white balls on black backgrounds and shook my head and blinked my eyes and banged my head against the wall. No rainbows. None. Your mileage may vary.
The specifications promise 32db of noise – one of the quietest projectors ever made. In practice it is very quiet, but if you're sitting on top of it, it isn't silent. But more important is the type of noise – the Piano does not make an annoying, high pitched whine like many DLP business projectors (typically due to the spinning color wheel). The Piano sounds more like the fan in my computer notebook, which I don’t find objectionable.
The lack of a zoom lens may be a big issue for a lot of people - the screen width changes depending on what aspect ratio the source is in, so you must be able to move the projector forward and back to maintain a constant image width. I'll probably end up mounting this on a track on the ceiling. If your room doesn't offer placement/movement flexibility, the InFocus LS110 has the same DLP chipset as the Plus Piano and includes a zoom lens.
One final note: you can order the Piano in a number of colors - I chose red, and I wouldn't do it again. I thought it would be glossy Ferrari red, and it turns out it's matte candy apple red. The matte color is a plus in terms of reducing reflections, but isn't as nice when showing the unit off to friends. I won't be sending this back based on the color, but if I was doing this again I'd go with plain white.
For a few hundred dollars more than the Piano, you could get the business projector widely touted as one of the best for home theater use, the NEC LT150z. I haven't personally used one of these with video, but it uses a regular DLP engine and is subject to rainbows and increased noise. It also needs a HTPC for the best picture, though a progressive scan DVD player can also work – in either case, you’ll need a custom VGA-to-component video cable. Instead of displaying a DVD in the Piano's 848x480 resolution, it will upsample DVDs to 1024x575 - which should completely eliminate any visible pixel structure. It will also downsample HDTV to 1024x575, and includes a zoom lens for placement flexibility.
Another option that's easier to use "out of the box" is the InFocus LS110 (which I also have not seen). It's based on the same DLP chipset as the Piano, uses a Sage chip for deinterlacing, includes a zoom lens, extra brightness, 2db higher noise, and $2000 higher cost. I believe the InFocus is overpriced right now, but if (when) the price comes down by $1000 - $1500, I suspect it may be a better option for a lot of people than the Piano because of the zoom lens (other than the cost and the zoom lens, the other differences should be relatively minor when watching DVDs in a darkened room).
Another business projector, the Sanyo XP21N, is also just under $5000, and the folks over at http://www.projectorcentral.com love it. I haven't seen any LCD projector that puts out 2,500 lumens, so I can't comment on how it compares for DVDs. But it's the only option worth considering if you want to watch the Super Bowl on a 100" screen with the lights on.
For $5000 to $7000, you can go with a Sanyo PLV-60 or a Sony VPL-11HT. Both have similar specifications; I extensively demo'd the Sony. At 1366x768, you cannot see visible pixels on either of these. You can view 720p HDTV with full resolution, and 1080i mapped to 1366x768 - it's very nice. The official contrast ratios on these are the same as the Piano's, but the picture quality of a DVD on the Piano was much better - blacks were darker, there was much better shadow detail, and the picture had more snap to it. I was quite impressed with the Sony's picture until I saw the Piano.
For $8,000 - $10,000, you can get a Sharp 9000u or Yamaha DPX-1. On DVD, they produce slightly better pictures than the Piano - they have more pixels (1280x720 for the Sharp, 1024x575 for the Yamaha) along with even higher contrast ratios. Both should be able to light up a bigger screen than the Piano. The Yamaha – using the composite input - produced a more three dimensional picture off a DVD than the Piano. The Sharp equaled that and produced the best HDTV I have seen from a digital device. (Projectors using 9" CRTs are visibly better, more of a hassle, and a lot more expensive.)
If you want something easier to set up and live with, the Plus HE-3100 "Piano" is the best value (by far) provided:
Similarly, the InFocus LS110 should be a great value once it's price comes down a bit.
The Sanyo PLV-60 at first seemed like a great compromise. But you can get a better DVD image for less money with the Piano, and startlingly better HDTV with the Sharp. True, the Sharp costs considerably more, but if HDTV is important to you, it's worth the extra money.
Black - OK, it's a color, right? Not really - black is technically the absence of light. This sounds like a wiseacre response, but it isn't: since all digital devices pass light through, around, or off of a chip, blacks are never totally, well, black. LCD projectors were notorious for muddy gray blacks, and worse, poor shadow detail. In other words, shadows were all the same muddy gray color - you couldn't see if anything was lurking there. Newer LCDs improve on this, newer DLPs tend to be even better.
DLP – Digital Light Processing – a technology popularized by Texas Instruments that bounces light from an expensive light bulb off of a chip. Most consumer and business DLP machines use a single chip, which is covered with hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrors. The light then passes through a rapidly spinning color wheel, through a lens, out into the air, and onto your screen.
DLP chipset - I originally wrote that the Plus Piano and InFocus LS110 share a DLP engine. InFocus responded that "the optical engine is typically defined as: the lamp (burner & reflector), relay optics, color wheel, imaging device & projection lens. To my knowledge, the only component that these two projectors share in common is the imaging device - the Texas Instruments DMD" (digital micro-mirror device). This is true - image quality can be affected by anything in the optical chain, up to and including the design of the external case.
HTPC – Home Theater PC – this is a computer dedicated for use as a DVD player/scaler. It typically requires at least a 600 Mhz machine with a specialized graphics card. Because you can customize the output to exactly the specifications of your projector, a HTPC often provides the best DVD playback/scaling money can buy – for a lot less money than what money would otherwise have to buy. I’ve seen people who’ve put together HTPCs for under $600, but there are drawbacks: it isn’t particularly easy to use. It’s something of project to rig up a remote control. It could crash. You can’t do your taxes on it.
Hushbox – exactly what it sounds like – a box enclosure for a projector that silences (or at least reduces) projector noise.
LCD – Liquid Crystal Display – the same technology in digital watches can make an excellent projector. Light from an expensive light bulb is shined through LCD chips (most consumer and business LCD machines use three chips, one for each primary color). The light then goes through a lens, out into the air, and onto your screen.
Light spill – exactly what it sounds like – a halo of light around the image. If you put black material around the screen to soak up the light, it will have the added advantage of visibly increasing the image contrast.
Rainbow effect - with many DLP business projectors, there is the dreaded “rainbow effect,” where fast moving objects and bright objects on dark backgrounds appear to have rainbows following them around. Exact statistics are hard to verify, but the estimate is that 10% of people see them, and some of those folks get headaches from them. Newer DLP home theater projectors use quad-speed six-segment color wheels, which mitigate or eliminate the problem.
RPTV – Rear Projection TV. A big screen TV. Most use three CRT (cathode ray tubes) and bounce the image internally off a big mirror onto the screen.
Scaling artifacts – when a fixed pixel display (like a DLP) has to reproduce material with a different amount of information, it needs to make the information fit the display size – literally. It will invent new information or throw out information as needed. Done correctly, you might never notice. It’s hard to do correctly, though, and can introduce jagged edges, weird splotches of color, and other visible problems.
Screen door effect - with many LCD business projectors, everything looks like you’re looking at it through a screen door. This is great for business presentations, where it makes text sharper, but terrible for video. LCD projectors designed for home theater use may have more pixels, staggered pixels, or oddly shaped pixels, all of which mitigate or eliminate the “screen door effect.”
Screen gain – how much light a screen reflects back to you determines, in part, how bright the image will be. A matte white screen (1.0 gain) reflects back exactly what gets sent it’s way. Higher gain screens (1.3 – 2.5 gain) may use glass beads on the screen surface to focus the light back at you and appear brighter; the basic tradeoff is reduced visibility from the side. Negative gain screens, or “gray” screens are specifically designed for bright digital projectors. They absorb some of the excess light output and enhance contrast by using light gray screen material instead of white.
Tensioned screen – screens that pull down from the ceiling aren’t completely taut and flat, which provides the best image on the screen. Tensioned screens have wires running down the side or in back to ensure the screen surface is perfectly flat.
Titanic ship railings - a classic torture test for line doublers, the Titanic DVD is not "enhanced for widescreen TVs" and consequently lacks a bit of detail. In the early scenes of the boat, the camera pans across the railings. If your scaler isn't perfect, the railings will appear jagged or broken.
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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart