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An Awesome Projector That I Would Buy

By Geoff Morrison, Wirecutter

If I was looking to buy an awesome projector, I’d get the $2,600 Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020. I base this on multiple professional reviews, plus my own experience with it and similarly priced projectors. Here's what you should know about it.

If I was looking to buy an awesome projector, I’d get the $2,600 Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020. I base this on multiple professional reviews, plus my own experience with it and similarly priced projectors. I review projectors for Sound+Vision magazine, and have reviewed and written about projectors for CNET, Men’s Journal, Home Theater, Residential Systems, and other magazines and websites over the past 12 years.

What Makes a Good Projector?

Of course the best projectors have good picture quality, but what does that mean? All but the cheapest projectors are 1080p, the same resolution as most HDTVs. They almost all also have colors that look realistic. So all that leaves is brightness and contrast ratio.

Brightness, also called “light output” with a projector is crucial. This determines how large of a screen you can have, what type of screen you can have (more on this in a moment), and of course, how bright the image is. Projectors don’t need to be as bright as a television, as they’re not normally used in bright rooms.

Contrast ratio, or the difference between the darkest part of the image and the brightest, is the most important factor when it comes to picture quality. A projector (or TV for that matter) with a low contrast ratio will appear flat, washed out, and boring.

In many cases, the picture quality of the ultra-large LCD TVs is worse than a comparably priced projector.

Presuming decent picture quality, why choose a projector over a TV? First and foremost: size. Even with many inexpensive projectors, screen sizes of 100- to 150-inches are possible. In many cases, the picture quality of the ultra-large LCD TVs is worse than a comparably priced projector. Check out Don’t buy a jumbo LCD TV, buy a projector for a direct comparison.

All high-end, and most lower priced, projectors are 3D capable. All use active 3D glasses, but don’t require a special screen.

There are a few Ultra HD “4K” projectors starting to hit store shelves. These have four times the resolution of “normal” 1080p projectors. At the moment, they’re all exceptionally expensive (over $20,000). Since there is no readily available Ultra HD content, there’s little reason to consider these projectors at this time.

Photo credit: Flickr user SFB579 via Creative Commons

One of the biggest questions people have with projectors is what to use as a screen. Screens can range from free (your wall, or a sheet), to multi-thousand-dollar motorized screens that drop down from hidden compartments in ceilings. Generally speaking, it’s worth spending some money on a screen, as the surface is going to be smoother than any painted wall. Some screens can boost the image brightness, making for a brighter image. Check out screens from Stewart Filmscreen, Da-Lite, Elite, Screen Innovations, dnp, for starters.

Which Projector Technology is Best?

Viewed side-by-side, the contrast ratio of projectors that use LCD or LCOS make DLP projectors look washed out and flat in comparison.

All projectors use one of three technologies to create an image: LCD (Liquid Crystal Display), LCOS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon), and DLP (Digital Light Processing). DLP offers some advantages over LCD and LCOS, namely in motion resolution, lower 3D crosstalk, and overall image uniformity, but it comes up severely short in the most important aspect of picture quality: contrast ratio. Though many companies make DLP projectors, only one company (Texas Instruments) makes the DLP chips. As such, the projectors will perform fairly similarly in regards to native contrast ratio. I have reviewed many DLP projectors over the past few years, and while some have been quite good, none can compete on contrast ratio. When viewed side-by-side, the contrast ratio of projectors that use LCD or LCOS make DLP projectors look washed out and flat in comparison.

Also, some people are very susceptible to the “rainbow effect” that’s common with inexpensive DLP projectors. This is when bright objects seem to have rainbow trails. Some people don’t notice it, but it bothers others enough that they don’t enjoy watching DLP projectors.

Lastly, very few DLP projectors in the $3,000 price range offer any kind of lens shift–the ability to aim a projector askew and still get a squared-off picture–and most have limited zoom ranges, making placement more of a challenge. For comparison, our projector pick has significant horizontal and vertical lens shift, plus a wide zoom range, meaning you can place it in a wide variety of places in a room. Our step-up pick has motorized zoom with memory, so you can program in one setting for watching a 16×9 TV show, and a zoomed-out setting for watching 2.35:1 movies on a 2.35:1 screen.

This isn’t to say there aren’t good looking DLP projectors, but in the price ranges where LCD and LCOS projectors are offered, they usually perform better overall.

So our criteria for the “best” projector is one with a lot of brightness (light output) and a decent or great contrast ratio. These two factors are easily the most important factors when it comes to a projector, as they determine the size of the image, and how good that image looks. Features like a zoom range and lens shift are an added bonus.

How Much Does a Decent Projector Cost?

Projectors come in all range of prices, from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, and everywhere in between. The key is finding the sweet spot for price and picture quality. Stepping up from $1000 to nearly $3000 gets you a big jump in picture quality. Stepping from $3000 to $30,000, not so much.

The lowest priced projectors often offer decent brightness, but don’t have a good contrast ratio. In other words, the image will be big and bright, but will look washed out. Stepping up in price to around $3,000 gets you both brightness and contrast ratio, which is why our pick was in this range.

Who Should Buy This?

Anyone looking for a movie theater experience at home, wants to enjoy a massive “TV” for movies, sports, or gaming, or just doesn’t want to settle for the mediocre picture quality of the largest LCD TVs (for more on this, check outProjectors vs. TVs: Giant-screen pros and cons). If you’re just looking for an occasional “big screen” or don’t care if the image isn’t perfect, there are lower priced projectors that offer a decent, but bright image.

Modern projectors are bright enough that they can be watchable with some light in the room, but none can compete with a lot of daylight.

Generally speaking, a projector like this would go in a light-controlled room. In some cases this is a dedicated “home theater,” but this isn’t the only situation. Really, any room where you can limit the light (like with curtains), a projector will work. Modern projectors are bright enough that they can be watchable with some light in the room, but none can compete with a lot of daylight. A TV is much better for rooms where light is an issue.

If you already have a projector, and are considering an upgrade, the age of your projector is likely the determining factor. Most projectors are much brighter than even the uber-expensive projectors from just a few years ago. If you’re happy with your current projector, don’t feel you need to upgrade, unless you want something specific that a new model offers (3D, the potential for a larger screen).

Our Pick

Why the Epson 5020? Firstly, it’s exceptionally bright. On my 102-inch screen, I got 60 foot-lamberts, which is brighter than some 50-inch LCD TVs. This is previously unheard of with projectors. It allows you to create an exceptionally large image, over 150-inches diagonal easily. Or, on a “normal” sized projection screen, a bright, punchy image that can compete with some room lighting (though no projector can truly compete with ambient light (get curtains!). The contrast ratio is very good. The color is accurate as well.

I recently reviewed the Epson and two of its major competitors, the Sony VPL-HW50ES and the JVC DLA-X35, for Sound+Vision magazine. In my review, I said of the Epson, “The light output of the 5020e is so much greater than anything else in its price category that it’s hard to judge it past that point. Yes, the color isn’t as good as on the Sony. Yes, the contrast isn’t as good as on the JVC. But… that light. The fact that in Dynamic mode its contrast is good and its color acceptable makes the Epson a remarkable projector. There are no bad choices in this trio, but if the Sony is a BMW M3 and the JVC a Porsche 911, then the 5020e is a Corvette ZR-1. Not as well rounded as the Sony or as precise as the JVC, but 638 horsepower (i.e., 60 ftL brightness) makes you forget and forgive a lot.” The Epson got a Certified and Recommended Award (though so did the also excellent JVC and Sony, which we’ll discuss later).

The light output of the 5020e is so much greater than anything else in its price category.

It’s worth mentioning the 5020 is available as an “e” model (as in, 5020e), which come with a wireless HD transmitter. I’d be cautious about this, as it adds a few hundred dollars to the price of the projector, and the wireless transmission is finicky. In my testing, even walking in front of the transmitter can cut the signal, and there has to be a line of sight between the transmitter and the projector, which means you can’t put the transmitter in a cabinet. Instead, I recommend running long HDMI cables, especially those with RedMere technology, which work well and are fairly cheap. I use Monoprice cables with RedMere in my lab, and they were $62 for 40-feet.

Or, if you don’t want to run cables, I recommend the IOGear Wireless HD Digital Kit, which we picked as the best wireless HDMI transmitter, which works better than the Epson’s wireless technology.

Who Else Likes it?

CNet’s Ty Pendlebury, who also checked out these three projectors, gave the 5020 an Editor’s choice award, saying “Colors are excellent — very close to our reference JVC X35…” and “…the light output potential of the 5020 outdoes any of the others.” “The Epson 5020 projector can deliver great dark-room images yet has enough light output for moderately lit rooms, too; excellent color accuracy; deep black levels with ample shadow detail; plenty of features including motorized lens cover, horizontal and vertical lens shift, and two pairs of 3D glasses.” He concluded “The Epson 5020UB projector offers excellent picture quality for the money, and is versatile enough for both dark and moderately lit rooms.”

Grant Clauser, in Electronic House magazine’s review, said “Overall, the Epson 5020UBe is an excellent performer, easily affordable and includes installation-friendly features that won’t leave you standing on a ladder cursing into a cell phone with tech support. At this price, you can’t get a 3-chip DLP or LCoS projector, but the Epson blows away any single-chip DLP in the same range.” Concluding, “For the typical modest basement theater or spare media room, the 5020UB is an easy product to recommend.”

Bill Livolsi in his review for Projector Central, said, “Its bright picture combines deep contrast and vibrant color to create a picture that pops off of the screen, while its 3D performance has received a significant boost thanks to new RF-sync glasses. Great color, high contrast, and excellent placement flexibility make the Epson 5020 series easy to like.” Concluding, “Despite the stiff competition from other projectors this year, the 5020UBe is a strong value in the home theater market and an excellent choice for home theater in just about any situation.”

ProjectorReviews.com’s Art Feierman in his review said, “I will soon be returning [the older HC5010]. If Epson figures they are getting this 5020 back anytime soon, however, they are delusional.” “The combination of excellent overall performance in terms of brightness, color, blacks, shadow detail, and 3D, with a price lower than most of the most direct competitors, makes this a top value. That it sells for a good deal less than the Sony and Panasonic (my next two choices in this price range), should seal the deal for many folks. Bottom Line: The Epson Home Cinema 5020 is likely to be the best choice for pretty large chunk of the folks that can afford it.”

It's Not Perfect

The most common complaint about the Epson is that in its brightest mode, it’s much louder than the JVC or Sony. It’s not loud, but during quiet movie passages, if it’s right above your head, you’ll hear it. This is a common issue with projectors, though the JVC and Sony are quieter.

So for most people, the Epson offers the best combination of price, light output, contrast, and color accuracy. In short, it’s bright and looks great.

For Those with Dedicated Theaters

For just about everyone, the Epson is the best choice. If you have a dedicated theater (with a reasonably sized screen and light control), the $3,500 JVC DLA-X35 might be a better option. You sacrifice a lot of brightness (it’s half as bright), but has noticeably better contrast. The contrast ratio on the JVC is unmatched, and that means its image is more 3-dimensional, even when showing 2D. From my review at S+V, “JVC consistently does native contrast ratio better than any other manufacturer. And its DLA-X35 improves on the model that preceded it by maintaining the same excellent black level, but with a brightness increase of around 20%. This improvement means that JVC’s new $3,500 projector has a better contrast ratio than last year’s $12,000 model — as well as pretty much every other display out there. Sure, the Epson dazzles with its incredible light output, but once (if?) you get past that, the JVC’s image is actually better. It was the only one in this group that on several occasions projected an image so gorgeous it actually made me say, ‘Wow.’”

From David Katzmaier’s review at CNet he said of the picture quality, “In a word, ‘spectacular.’ The combination of a huge image and the JVC’s excellent black levels and color produce the kind of experience that blows away any mere television,“ and “[It] doles out huge, stunning projection images characterized by deep black levels and highly accurate color; excellent value for this level of image quality; extensive picture adjustments and setup options, including power zoom, focus, and lens shift; no-nonsense minimalist design; optional 3D emitter compatible with cheaper third-party glasses.” Concluding, “The relatively affordable JVC DLA-X35 produces videophile-grade images with very few compromises.”

The only big issue is that it’s only half as bright as the Epson, which is quite significant. It’s not dim (and still brighter than almost every projector from a few years ago), but the added light of the Epson gives you more flexibility. If you don’t have a perfectly dark room, or if you want a larger screen, the Epson is better.

The Competition

The Sony VPL-HW50ES is another close competitor, but it’s more expensive than either the Epson or the JVC ($4000, though it does come with 2 pairs of 3D glasses and an extra lamp). While it has a little more realistic color, it has neither the Epson’s light output, nor the JVC’s incredible contrast, so for the two most important aspects of picture quality, it’s not quite as good. In other words, it doesn’t perform quite as well as the Epson or JVC, but costs more money.

From me via S+V, “The VPL-HW50ES doesn’t offer better performance than the Epson or JVC, so its higher price seems a bit much. But in this trio of truly tremendous projectors, the Sony is more well rounded than the others. It can’t match the Epson’s light output or the JVC’s contrast ratio, though it is bright, with good contrast and a little more accurate color than the others. The HW50ES is ok, just not as single-issue excellent as the JVC and Epson projectors.”

One of the only other offerings in this price range is the $2,800 Panasonic PT-AE8000, which has fewer reviews overall, and while they’ve generally been good, those that have seen it side-by-side with the Epson pick the latter. FromProjectorReviews.com, “The contest definitely was closer in some regards, but overall, the Epson Home Cinema 5020 UB did what it had to do, to improve performance overall compared to the Panasonic PT-AE8000. Basically it now offers brighter, and overall better 3D, last year it offered brighter, but not as good 3D,” and “…essentially most of the performance and image quality aspects of these projectors slightly favor the Epson Home Cinema 5020UB.”

A Step Down

For those on a budget, the 5020’s little brother, the $1,600 PowerLite Home Cinema 3020, is worth checking out. It’s bright, but doesn’t quite offer the 5020’s picture quality.

PCMag liked the 3020 enough to give it an Editor’s Choice award, saying, “In most ways, the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 3020e is the 2D and 3D home entertainment projector I’ve been waiting for, it’s an excellent low-cost 3D home theater projector as well, and it’s an easy pick for Editors’ Choice.”

Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity said in their review, “Epson has always been a value leader with their front-projection models and the 3020e continues that tradition. This is the fourth generation I’ve reviewed and they just keep getting better and better,” and “…Add to that, prodigious light output from only a 230-watt bulb, excellent optics and decent color accuracy; and you have a winning product here. It’s the little things that count and it seems every year, Epson adds just enough to stay ahead of the competition. You’d have to spend quite a bit more money to do significantly better. If you’re on a tight budget, it’ll be difficult to improve on the Epson Home Cinema 3020e.”

How does it stack up to our main pick? The more expensive projector is actually a better value.

CNet, in their 5020 review, mentions why they thought the 5020 was worth the extra money over the 3020, “While I was a little underwhelmed by the Epson 3020 for the price — its colors were good enough but its black levels were fairly ordinary — there are no such troubles with the 5020. Yes, you are paying an extra $1,000, but the results are tangible.”

So even though the 5020 is more, its performance justifies the price difference.

A Step Up

There’s not really a better model that costs a little bit more than the 5020, strangely enough.

If you’re willing to spend a bit more for a bit better image quality, there’s the Epson 6020, which is similar to the 5020 from a picture quality standpoint, but adds two years to the warranty (3 total), an extra lamp, and a ceiling mount, for around $3,500, though it’s hard to find online (you’ll need to go to a dealer).

It’s hard to improve further on the Epson 5020 or the 6020. If you looked around, you’d consider, after a little research the $4500 JVC DLA-X55R. But here’s why its not as good of a choice–It offer’s JVC’s 4K e-shift2, which quadruples the number of pixels visible on screen. This isn’t a true Ultra HD 4K projector, instead there’s an optical component in the projector that uses the 1,920×1080 LCOS panels to create 3,840×2160 pixels on screen. However, the improvement isn’t as significant as you’d think. Home Theater’s Kris Deering reviewed the X55R, and found “no apparent increase in resolution for me in my setup. The image looked slightly smoother with e-shift2 on compared with it off, but perceptual sharpness and detail didn’t look any better.” Worse, the light output is slightly lower on the X55R compared to the X35 (1,200 lumens vs 1,300).

Because of that, I’d recommend the cheaper JVC DLA-X35 over the DLA-X55R, and still, I’d get the Epson 5020 over the DLA-X35. Come again? Yes, our main pick is what I’d get over these higher end choices.

So, yeah, even if you want to spend a bit more money, our main pick, the Epson 5020, is the one to get.

Wrapping it Up

And that’s what it comes down to. Brightness. So thanks to its incredible light output, and also great all around image, plus a price lower than its competitors, I’d pick the awesome $2,600 Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020.

This story originally appeared in The Wirecutter, published 4/24/2013 and reprinted with permission.