For quite some time, the battle for display supremacy has been a back-and-forth campaign: projection strikes out with new capabilities, then flat-panel TV designers counter with bigger and brighter models, forcing the manufacturers of the former to play catch-up. But with the prices of large flat panels falling lower and lower, it has seemed like two-piece projection might at last be forced into capitulation.
But with the growth of new technologies and efforts to target the wider market, projectors are back from the brink–and looking as promising as ever. Part of this resurgence, according to Brian Perreault, COO of Barrett's Technology Solutions, is due to renewed interest and capability of the high-end buyer. “In particular, there has been more and more demand for dedicated home theaters,” he said. “We believe the uptick in the stock market has really given this segment of our business a boost.”
Craig Abplanalp, president of Seattle-based Definitive Audio, agrees, adding that recent advancements in immersive audio have played a role as well. “High-performance home theater is creating new interest in the residential market,” he said. “Technologies like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, 4K, and HDR have set new performance standards. It’s the combined experience of these technologies that are driving our business.”
For an authentic, larger-than-life silver screen experience, there’s currently no choice other than projection. Its possible cinematic successor, modular direct-view LED displays–like the 146-inch behemoth Samsung debuted at CES 2018 dubbed “The Wall”–have a prominent flaw for this use case, which Michael Heiss expertly identified in his CES recap on page 24: the inability to place left-, center-, and right-channel speakers behind the screen, leading to a subpar audio presentation. And, of course, when such solutions do hit the market, their pricing will put them out of reach of all but the wealthiest of the wealthy.
Projectors, on the other hand, have been grabbing back some turf from the large flat panel market as of late with their push for affordability.
“Lower cost, higher performance 4K HDR projectors from Sony have transformed our previously sluggish sales,” Abplanalp said. “Sony is doing the best job leveraging new technology, building premium product and providing tremendous value.”
Until recently, you could expect a 4K projector from that company to carry a five-digit price hit. At CEDIA 2017, Sony expanded its home theater projector lineup to include an entry-level offering costing less than $5,000, the VPL-VW285ES. Capable of projecting a 200-inch image in 4K with HDR, and handling 60Hz signals with 10-bit depth, the announcement was a big step for the category.
This trend was taken even further last month, beginning with ViewSonic’s pre-CES announcement of its first 4K projector, the PX727-4K. With 2,200 lumens of brightness and a contrast ratio of 12,000:1, the PX727-4K can handle HDR-10 with both Rec. 709 and Rec. 2020 compatibility, and DCI-P3 coverage for a wide color gamut. And, with an MSRP of $1,499, it’s positioned around the typical price of a higher-end 65-inch flat panel.
At the same time, BenQ came out with a $1,499 4K model of its own, the CineHome HT2550 DLP projector. Using 0.47-inch, single-DMD-chip TI DLP technology, it is capable of covering 96 percent of the Rec. 709 color gamut with BenQ’s CinematicColor technology and an RGBRGB color wheel. Like the ViewSonic PX727-4K, it is also capable of displaying HDR10 content.
CES 2018 also saw a reinvigorated push in a different production category: ultra short-throw (UST). Intended for use places where a flat panel display might have been specified, such as living rooms, manufacturers of these devices have been making strides to bring their price points to levels more competitive with flat panels, as well.
Optoma, which also unveiled a 4K home cinema projector at CES for $1,499, launched its first 4K UST model at the show, the aptly named 4K UHD HDR Laser UST. The projector, which is capable of creating a 120- to 140-inch picture–as well as a 100-inch image when positioned 8 inches from the wall–outputs 2,300 lumens with a reported 2,000,000:1 contrast ratio. Planned for delivery in midyear, the company is targeting a $4,999 price point, far below the industry standard of $20,000, according to the company’s senior director of planning and strategy, Jon Grodem.
At CES, Hisense announced its dedication to an integrated UST projection solution the company calls “Laser TV.” Using TI’s DLP 4K UHD DMD chip, the Laser TV shines 3,000 lumens on an integrated Screen Innovations ambient light-rejecting screen, and will be adding 150-, 88-, and 80-inch variants to its current 100-inch model this year. With the aim of being a standalone alternative to flat panels, the Laser TV features a built-in NTSC/ATSC tuner and Harman/Kardon 2.1 sound system with a wireless subwoofer. According to reports from TWICE Magazine, the 100-inch version is set to ship in late January at an MSRP of $9,999–a significant savings over the price of similar-sized flat panels.
For the client who wants a home cinema that rivals or exceeds the experience of even the finest commercial theaters, there’s innovation on that front as well. Digital Projection International’s HIGHlite Laser 4K-UHD can produce 12,500 lumens from its solid-state, laser-phosphor light source that is capable of operating for more than 20,000 hours–making this a virtually maintenance-free installation until it’s time to upgrade the client to 8K.
Pound for pound and inch for inch, projectors still rein supreme over panels in big screen entertainment–and will continue to for the foreseeable future. And with their push into mainstream consumer price ranges, high-quality home theaters are becoming increasingly in reach of typical households, opening up a tremendous swath of potential clients in the process. Will you be ready to equip them?