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 #28 (04/16/02)
The PLUS HE-3100 Piano Six Months Later
Avi's initial review of the PLUS HE-3100 Piano was in Column 16.
It’s actually only five months since I purchased the PLUS Piano projector, but it’s long enough to have some added perspective.
First, a general rule: if you’re choosing between a big screen TV or a projector, you should know that the relationship between screen size and dramatic impact is not linear – it seems to be exponential. In other words, there’s a huge difference between watching a movie letterboxed on my 53” TV vs. letterboxed on the 84” screen.
Life With A Piano
The user interface design (changing aspect ratios, image settings, etc.) is a lot more important for long-term use than it is for most short-term reviewers. I’m pleased to report that the Piano has the best designed user interface of any projector I’ve used. The manual (not remote-controllable) power button is an annoying design flaw, though.1
The Piano uses a dual aspect ratio chip, and does not provide any zoom capabilities. This means that to maintain a fixed width screen (and fill the entire width for both anamorphic and letterbox movies) requires physically moving the projector up or back 6" – 24”. If you are using a coffee table as your projector stand, this isn’t a big deal. But for permanent ceiling mounts, you have two choices:
· The more sensible approach: get a 16:9 screen and mount the projector at the distance to fill the screen with anamorphic DVDs. The three inches of black bars on the sides for the rare non-anamorphic DVD are just not worth killing yourself over. 4:3 sources fill the center of the screen with large black bars on the sides (the way a 16:9 projector should display such material).
· Of course, that’s not what I did. I got a 4:3 screen and built a custom ceiling installation bracket based on a drawer slide and a speaker bracket. It was a simple Home Depot project (total cost ~$50) greatly helped by the Piano’s light weight. By moving the projector up or back, I can fill the width of the screen with material in any aspect ratio.
Hang around online forums much, and you’ll hear a lot of discussion around black level and shadow detail. This is the one area where traditional tube-based projectors still maintain an advantage over digital projectors, and you might think that CRT projector fans are a bit obsessed. That may be true, but black level and shadow detail – sometimes a function of image contrast – are, in fact, extremely important. The Piano is pretty good in this regard. It is much better than the Sony VPL-10HT, and still noticeably better than any other LCD projector I’ve compared it to. However, I was watching a The Godfather yesterday (a fairly dark film), and I wished it were better still. CRT fans may not be so crazy after all...
Watching the Super Bowl was instructive. I sometimes watch movies during the day without total light control and lament the fact that I’m not getting the best picture the projector can deliver. However, our Super Bowl party was a big success – with a low resolution analog cable feed (digitized through a RePlay), a 450 lumen projector, the lights halfway on, and the image filling the full 84” 4:3 screen. Yes, the picture was not super sharp – but it was not as fuzzy as the big screen TVs in our local sports bars. Yes, I noticed that the image was a bit washed out – but the guests didn’t; they were commenting on how bright and colorful the image was – without a comparison level, your eyes adjust. I was surprised at how watchable and enjoyable the experience was; even for me, and, as you can tell, I’m picky.
With total light control, the Piano is plenty bright.
My settings maximize contrast at the expense of a bit of white clipping4. There are occasional scenes in bright animated films (Toy Story) where I thinking about pulling things back, but otherwise, I like the tradeoff.
The most noticeable problem with my setup is not black level, light spill3, or artifacts with video sources6 (all of which are barely worth mentioning) – it’s the slight ripple in the screen surface. A tensioned screen2 would be the single biggest improvement I could make to the system. A tensioned FireHawk screen from Stewart Filmscreen – which would increase brightness and contrast – would be even better. And one with a masked border to soak up the few inches of light spill… ah, heaven.
Have you ever seen the rain(bows)5?
I can’t, and none of my dozens of guests over the last five months have been able to see them, either. I would still only purchase a big ticket item like this if you can return it for a full refund, just in case you are extremely sensitive to rainbows. But I’m confident that few if any of my guests will ever notice rainbows on this projector, let alone be severely bothered by them.
In the six months since I started seriously researching projectors, not much has changed in the market. The Piano’s price remains at $3000 (though $100-off promotions aren’t unheard of) and it remains an excellent buy. The street price on the InFocus Screenplay (LS110) has dropped from it’s $5000 list price closer to $4000, which is still a big premium over the Piano, but isn’t quite as egregious. It boasts higher light output, excellent Faroudja video processing (instead of excellent Silicon Image video processing6), a manual zoom lens, and downscaled HDTV through the component video inputs (not just the DVI input, as on the Piano). Reviewers have repeatedly indicated that the user interface on the ScreenPlay is not as good as the Piano. Nonetheless, if the added features appeal to you and your budget allows it, the InFocus is an excellent value.
Moving up to 720p HDTV-capable projectors, I still haven’t seen the Sharp v9000 bettered at around $9000. The Marantz 12sf is extremely stiff competition, but costs a few $thousand more.
However, within the year, I expect higher resolution projectors (competitive with the Sharp) to start appearing at the $5000 price mark. If your budget is fixed and your timeframe is flexible, it may pay to wait. Otherwise, jump in – the picture is fine!
1. Yes, I know that it’s done that way to prevent the light bulb from exploding, but a simple shutdown sequence could have easily been implemented instead.
2. A tensioned screen has a mechanism pulling it completely flat. Non-tensioned screens are only mostly flat, and when image pans across the screen, ripples in the screen surface show up as waves or bloating in the image.
3. Light Spill - DLP projectors use DLP chips illuminated by a light bulb. On many such projectors, some light "spills" around the outside edges of the chip, framing the picture on screen with a halo of light. This halo affects perceived contrast somewhat, but mostly it's just a minor annoyance.
4. White clipping - called blooming on CRT projectors - is when extremely white areas of the picture lose subtle variations in white level, and, with close examination, look a bit splotchy.
5. “Rainbows” are rainbow-colored streaks of light some people see when watching high contrast motion on single-DLP machines. In newer projectors such as the PLUS Piano, projector designers have made changes to the color wheel and associated electronics to minimize this effect.
6. The Faroudja chip includes DCDi, a proprietary technique for reducing stair-stepping artifacts on video material. It works extremely well, although the picture is softened just a bit. For video-sourced material, the Silicon Image chip in the Piano does do a good job; there is some stair stepping on horizontal lines (example: James Taylor's guitar strings on "Live at the Beacon Theater") but it's not obvious and you have to be looking for it. I don't watch much video-sourced material, as I mostly use the projector for film-based DVDs, where the Silicon Image chip does at least as good a job as the Faroudja (some say better than Faroudja). But if you watch a lot of video-based material (documentaries and concert videos are often shot this way), the LS110's DCDi will provide the best possible image.
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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart