Don't buy a jumbo LCD TV, buy a projector

Projectors provide better picture quality and value than any huge LCD TV.

Geoffrey Morrison

With all the hype and hoopla about Sharp's 80-, and now 90-inch LCDs, I think it's important to point out that these are neither a good value, nor a good idea if your goal is a big TV for the home.

Yes, I'm talking about projection, and it's easier, cheaper, and better looking than a big LCD.

In a way, I've talked about this before . But now that these LCD behemoths are real, have prices, and are actually shipping (more or less), a direct comparison is simple. First, the pros and cons.

Pro LCD
They're bright. Far brighter than any projector. As they emit their own light, they'll hold up better in a well-lit room. If your room is all windows, and you're shade/curtain-phobic, stop reading here.

They're "simple." This is an argument I know is common, though I don't really understand it myself. Projectors are two pieces: the projector and the screen. You only need to run one HDMI to a projector, and the screen doesn't actually require anything other than mounting.

They don't need a separate audio system. If you're using the speakers in your TV, well, I'm not sure why. All TV speakers are awful.

Pro projector
Not limited to a specific screen size. You can size your screen to your room, and the projector will generally be able to zoom in or out to fit. Want a smaller, brighter screen? No problem. Want a massive wall-size screen? Depending on the projector, no problem.

Often better picture quality (more on this later).

Price. Per screen inch, projectors are much cheaper than a big LCD, even when you include the screen.

Hideable. With little effort, you can make the projector and screen disappear when you're not using them. Try that with a 150-pound LCD.

Con LCD
Expensive.

Limited viewing angle.

Mediocre picture quality.

Con projector
Requires separate audio system.

Requires more elaborate installation.

Can't handle ambient light. This, of course, is the big one.

Compare/contrast
I recently reviewed the 80-inch Sharp LC-80LE844U for Sound+Vision (will be posted soon) and what I saw mirrored what Ty Pendlebury found here on CNET with the step-down Sharp LC-80LE632U . The picture quality, when seated directly in front of the screen, was decent. Move one seat over, or look off to the edges of the screen, and it faltered significantly. For $5,999 MSRP, I was rather shocked. After all, some of the best projectors I've seen lately were $3,000-$3,500. That leaves plenty left over for a screen, and even an audio system if you don't have one already. So this got me thinking. From a raw numbers point of view, what are we talking about here? Well, as measured by me, this:

Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5010 ($2,999)
On a Stewart 1.0-gain, 102-inch 16:9 screen:
48.06/0.011 foot-Lamberts full white/full black
Contrast Ratio: 4,369:1

JVC

JVC DLA-X30 ($3,499)
On a Stewart 1.0-gain, 102-inch 16:9 screen:
25.69/ 0.0009 ftL full white/full black
Contrast ratio: 28,544:1 (one of the best I've ever measured)

Sharp LC-80LE844U ($5,999)
Backlight at -16
13.18/0.005 ftL full white/full black
Contrast ratio: 2,636:1

Backlight at +16
85.99/0.032 ftL full white/full black
Contrast ratio: 2,687:1

(These are measured, native contrast ratios. For more info, check out my article Contrast ratio, or: How every TV manufacturer lies to you )

No doubt, the Sharp is significantly brighter. At least, with the backlight all the way up. The black level in that mode was dark gray at best. The Epson, one of the brightest projectors I've ever measured, is still not as bright. Worse, if there's any ambient light in the room, the contrast ratio of the projectors will suffer far more than the LCD.

But light output is only one aspect of performance. Like I said, if your room has a lot of ambient light, and you can't fix that, then a projector isn't for you. I have to assume that not everyone reading this lives in a house of all windows. Room darkening shades are less than $50 from Lowe's or Home Depot (I know, I bought some). I don't watch much TV during the day, but when I do, the shades work perfect.

But at night, my 102-inch screen is amazing (or close to amazing, depending on what projector I'm reviewing). The current crop of projectors offer incredible picture quality for very little money. Look at the two I mentioned. The Epson has nearly twice the native contrast ratio as the Sharp, and that's just measuring the Sharp at the center. The JVC is so much better, it's not even in the same league. It's not even playing the same sport.

The ambient light conundrum
Projectors are a two part system, and this additional part allows you to further fine-tune the performance. I use and measure projectors on a 1.0-gain screen. This offers benefits to me as a reviewer (uniformity, more consistent measurements) that aren't necessarily what you'd want or need. A higher gain screen will get you more light output (almost always a good thing), while some models and materials will even help reject ambient light in the room.

Let me be clear, even the most high-tech uber-material isn't going to reject ambient light as much as the marketing claims, but some do a pretty decent job. I reviewed Screen Innovations Black Diamond Zero Edge screen a few months ago, and came away quite impressed. It's a rigid screen, so when the projector is off, the screen looks exactly like an ultra-thin flat panel hanging on your wall. It does a pretty good job rejecting ambient light (significantly better than my reference screen), enough so that you don't have to "live in a cave" as some expect when living with a projector.

Bottom line
I am an unabashed fanboy of huge screens. I watch all my TV on a 102-inch screen, and think anyone who wants to, can (should?) do the same. What I don't get, is spending such incredible money on big LCDs. The new 90-inch from Sharp is $10,999. For that money you could get an amazing projector, whatever screen you want, a full audio system, and install motorized shades and light dimmers to automatically darken your room. And you'd still have money left over to buy some Blu-rays, popcorn, and a full calibration .

What do you think? Have you made the switch to projection? Would you get a big LCD over a projector? Why?


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like HDMI cables , LED LCD vs. plasma , Active vs Passive 3D , and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.

About the author

Geoffrey Morrison is a freelance writer/photographer for CNET, Forbes, and TheWirecutter. He also writes for Sound&Vision magazine, HDGuru.com, and several others. He was Editor in Chief of Home Entertainment magazine and before that, Technical Editor of Home Theater magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling first novel, Undersea, is available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon, B&N, and elsewhere.

 

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