High resolution is an essential component of good picture quality, hence our decision to only review projectors of 1080p. It's also important to have as dark a room as possible (although some machines can compensate), a good contrast ratio (effectively the difference between bright whites and dark blacks), and adequate brightness (measured in lumens). It's worth noting that the high-density bulb in a home cinema projector weakens over time, making your picture progressively darker. Bulb life, therefore, is a worthy consideration, as they're relatively expensive ($150 and up) to replace.
Compatibility & Connectivity
Most people's first goal when buying a large projector is probably to show movies to family and friends, but today's best home cinema projectors can integrate with technology to do much more than that.
Sound & Other Features
Some people purchase a dedicated sound system and set aside a room as a permanent home cinema. This type of set-up makes it difficult to use the space for any other purpose. We discuss the "extra features" that set one model apart from another.
A high-quality home theater projector can be an expensive investment. Our shortlist includes the five best machines available, but we haven't ignored budget considerations. All five offer exceptional value.
The Optoma HD141X Home Theater Projector provides an impressive contrast ratio of 20,000:1. At 3,000 lumens, brightness is also above average, with a bulb that is good for 6,500 hours. Chip type, which governs the way the colors are displayed, is DLP (digital light processing), and while this hasn't made the advances that LCD (liquid crystal display) has over the last few years, it's still capable of producing an excellent color range. The owners we surveyed love how easy it is to focus the image for a quick, sharp picture.
The ViewSonic DarkChip3 Home Theater Projector has the same DLP chip technology and 3,000 lumens of brightness as the Optoma. Bulb life is around 6,000 hours, which is only slightly less than that of the Optoma. At a contrast ratio of 15,000:1, the Viewsonic doesn't rate quite as highly as the Optoma in this area, although many owners we surveyed said they are more than happy with the brightness and sharpness of the ViewSonic's image. Nevertheless, this contrast ratio discrepancy could be a deterring factor for some potential buyers.
Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350
Although the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350 only offers 2,000 lumens of brightness, Epson uses separate brightness technology for color light and white light. The company claims that this brightness technology is equal to, or better than, its competitors. A more significant feature of the Epson PowerLite is contrast ratio, which is 50,000:1 and generated by 3 separate LCDs (one each for red, green and blue). These LCDs give a greater range of colors, and a more defined picture, than cheaper, single-chip versions, and LCD is now widely considered to be superior to most DLP systems. While one owner claimed a lamp lasted 9,000 hours, Epson representatives say the max is 4,000 hours, and that picture quality is likely to deteriorate considerably after that.
At first glance, the BenQ's 2,000 lumens and contrast ratio of just 10,000:1 would suggest that this projector is a bit inferior to our other finalists. And yet, hundreds of owners would argue just the opposite. One satisfied owner told us that the BenQ is "one of the best 1080p projectors out there. Period." BenQ proudly points out that their Darkchip3 DLP technology produces three times more contrast than similar LCD models, and that it does so consistently, for longer periods of time. Normal lamp life is rated at 3,500 hours. An Eco feature is available that can extend lamp life to 6,000 hours, but it's achieved by cutting brightness and is therefore only appropriate in very dark rooms, or as a "standby" when not being actively watched.
The Epson 5040UB Projector uses the same dual brightness technology as the Epson Powerlite 8350 home theater projector, but lumens are upped to 2,500 for both color and white light in the 5040UB. Contrast ratio is a whopping 1,000,000:1, a much higher ratio than any other model in this review. The Epson 5040UB features three LCDs for color which, according to the manufacturer, yield colors that are three times brighter than DLP models. Epson provides two different statistics for estimated lamp life: 4,000 hours normally and 5,000 hours using the Eco setting. The Epson 5040UB is the only one of our top five home theater projectors that is certified to the professional THX standard for theater sound and vision systems.
In addition to two HDMI ports for TV and other peripherals, the Optoma HD141X Home Theater Projector is also MHL (mobile high definition) compatible, allowing you to stream images and movies from compatible smartphones and tablets. The Optoma offers 3D support via a VESA 3D Sync port, allowing you to connect to a 3D Blu-ray player or plug into consoles like Xbox and Playstation.
The ViewSonic DarkChip3 Home Theater Projector has a single HDMI connector and inputs for VGA, component, and s-video. It "supports" 3D, which is a slightly confusing statement. According to the manufacturer, you need active shutter (RF) 3D glasses, which are not supplied, plus 3D content and a 3D-enabled video card. In practical terms, attaching a gaming machine or a 3D Blu-ray player provides the video card, so all you then need are the glasses, which are widely available from Viewsonic and other suppliers.
Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350
The Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350 provides two HDMIs which, given the number of products that use them, ought to be the minimum standard these days. The PowerLite includes inputs for all the usual video sources: composite, component, and s-video, and offers compatibility with HDTV, NTSC, PAL, and SECAM, so we're a little surprised that it's not 3D-capable. It's an omission that means that, in spite of its good picture quality, this machine is likely to get passed over by a number of potential buyers.
As is common at this product level, the BenQ W1070 Home Theater Projector comes with two HDMI connectors and all the video source compatibility of the Viewsonic and Epson. It also supports all the normal 3D formats: 3D Blu-ray, 3D broadcast (where available), plus appropriately enabled game consoles and NVIDIA 3DTV. As with the other 3D-ready projectors, however, active (or RF) glasses are not supplied.
The Epson 5040UB Projector comes with two pairs of high-quality, rechargeable RF 3D glasses. Not to be confused with the Epson PowerLite, which we also discuss in this review, the Epson 5040UB has two HDMI ports and just about every other connectivity and compatibility feature that you could think of, with the notable exception of MHL for your smartphone or tablet. That's somewhat surprising, particularly when you consider the fact that several lower-priced Epsons do have it, and also somewhat confusing when you consider the fact that the HDMI ports are compatible with the Apple iPad.
Rafe Needleman has been testing and writing about technology products for over 20 years. He has evaluated hundreds of products as editor of CNET and reviews/editorial director of Yahoo Tech.
Many people will set up dedicated sound systems for their home cinemas, but the Optoma HD141X Home Theater Projector provides 10-watt audio regardless. Given its smaller dimensions and weight of just 5.5 pounds, it's a relatively portable machine for those who don't want a permanent set-up. The Optoma offers energy-saving features such as a standby mode that only consumes 0.5 watts and an automatic shut-off. There's also a 12-volt jack so you have the possibility of running a motorized screen from it. All projectors have cooling fans, some of which can be intrusive, but owners report that the Optima's fan is very quiet.
At 4.6 pounds, the ViewSonic DarkChip3 Home Theater Projector is both smaller and lighter than the Optoma, making it easy to move around or mount on a shelf. This is an entry-level model with a built-in speaker output of only two watts, but the majority of users we surveyed had no problem with this feature. "DynamicEco" mode drops brightness to 30 percent on standby, saving energy and extending bulb life. Viewsonic is keen to point out the low-maintenance aspects of the ViewSonic and assures consumers that the machine experiences little or no performance deterioration over time.
Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350
At 16 pounds and approximately 15 x 18 x 6 inches, you'll probably not want to move the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350 very often. You'll also need to rely on peripherals for audio, as this model doesn't come with speakers. Interestingly, the specifications quote a 10-bit image potential. Blu-ray and other video sources only deliver 8-bit, which is then upscaled by the Epson PowerLite. Other useful features include the auto iris, which maintains image detail by adjusting light output up to 60 times per second, and the high-spec Fujinon lens.
In terms of size and weight, the BenQ W1070 Home Theater Projector is similar to the Optoma: it's not the smallest on the market, but it's not difficult to move around, either. The BenQ sports built-in, 10-watt speakers and a standby mode called Eco Blank that turns the screen to black if no source is detected after three minutes. Some critics claim that DLP technology hasn't made the advances that LCD has, but BenQ argues that their interpretation delivers long-lasting, high-quality imagery with great clarity. This model is ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) certified, offering day and night modes and levels of calibration that compensate for varying ambient light.
At 18 pounds and nearly two feet wide, there's no doubt that the Epson 5040UB Projector is a substantial beast. You might have thought that, given its size, the 5040UB would have built-in speakers, but that's not the case. This machine is focused on delivering pictures of the highest standard and, like the Epson 8350, has an auto iris and Fujinon lens. It also offers four additional color modes which are designed to improve image clarity depending on the type of content you're watching.
$880 is a great price for the Optoma HD141X Home Theater Projector. Some people might look at that price and still think it's high - you can get home theater projectors for quite a bit less - but not 1080p, widescreen models of this quality, and not with the high-resolution 3D compatibility offered by the Optoma. Owner comments like "Surpassed my expectations," and "Excellent budget projector," are common, and no more more than a handful of the owners we surveyed reported any problems with the Optoma HD141X.
The ViewSonic DarkChip3 Home Theater Projector is currently on offer for $549. The ViewSonic has only one HDMI connection, which is a bit short-sighted given the potential number of devices owners might want to connect, but it's a very popular machine nonetheless. Gamers in particular like the near-complete lack of image lag. The owners we surveyed voiced a few complaints about the manual adjustment for color and brightness, and the remote control unit also received a bit of criticism. Overall, however, the customers we spoke with considered the Viewsonic to be an excellent product for the money.
Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350
In terms of imaging equipment, few companies have a better reputation than Epson, so it's no surprise that the $1267 PowerLite Home Cinema 8350 has been received well by owners and reviewers alike. The Epson PowerLite's lack of built-in sound might disappoint some people, but the focus here is on delivering the best picture quality, leaving audio to external systems that would complement it. The owners we surveyed praised this system's clarity and clear imagery, even in rooms with higher-than-normal light levels. Some owners reported occasional flaws, such as a shorter-than-expected bulb life and auto iris errors.
The BenQ W1070 Home Theater Projector is currently on offer for $649. It's small enough to be portable, yet delivers the kind of picture quality that many owners in our survey have likened to projectors in the $3,000-$4,000 price range. Complaints are few and far between and are generally related to sporadic manufacturing flaws. In general, owners' comments resound with superlatives like "Awesome," "Absolutely stunned," and "Blown away!"
Not to be confused with the Epson PowerLite, the Epson 5040UB Projector costs $3299. That's way above the price of any of our other top cinema projectors, but the Epson 5040UB is in a class all its own. On the one hand, the omission of built-in sound might be a drawback for some, but the Epson 5040UB's inclusion of active 3D glasses is to be praised. The fact is, this machine is all about superior, large-scale image quality. If that's your most important criteria, this asking price is something of a bargain. We couldn't find a single user in our product research who had a negative word to say about this product.
Given that each of the final five selected for rating are, without exception, great machines, you might think that picking the best would be a bit of a challenge.
It isn't. The best home theater projector is undoubtedly the Epson 5040UB. This excellent machine is all about delivering the finest picture possible. The 5040UB's quality picture starts with its dual technology approach to brightness and is underlined by its class-leading 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. The Epson 5040UB's auto iris ensures image integrity by constantly adjusting itself for quality, and the Fujinon lens only adds to this machine's remarkable visual effects. The package as a whole is the only one on our shortlist that meets the stringent requirements of THX certification. Depending on your room size, the Epson 5040UB has the capacity to throw a crisp, colorful image onto a screen up to 300 inches across the diagonal. In terms of scale, that's 25 feet of breathtaking picture quality on your home theater's screen!
Tremendous 3D reproduction. All-encompassing peripheral compatibility. Absolutely no image lag. One owner called the Epson 5040UB "the best projector money can buy." This product consistently gets high ratings from home users, professionals, and imaging equipment experts alike. We give this model top ratings as the best home theater projector on the market today.
When it comes to striking a balance between projector price and performance, the BenQ W1070 Home Theater Projector offers the best of both worlds. Although some argue that digital light processing (DLP) technology has fallen behind LCD, BenQ's implementation of this technology offers picture quality that many find indistinguishable from higher-priced models. It handles ambient light variations superbly and produces a consistent image for years. It supports as many different devices as anything out there and, though it's a shame that 3D glasses aren't included in the BenQ package, most of its competitors take the same approach. The glasses are neither difficult to find nor expensive to buy as an add-on.
Feedback of real-world use is always important in judging equipment like this, and the BenQ W1070 receives consistently high ratings from both testers and owners. It's small and light enough to be used in temporary locations, but of high enough quality to be the centerpiece of a permanent home cinema installation.
Put simply, in this price range there's nothing to beat it.