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Among the handful of projectors we reviewed last year, Epson's 5020UB was our favorite, earning the Editors' Choice badge for its combination of picture quality and value. Yes, there are better projectors (for more money) and less expensive projectors (that can't begin to match its performance) but we felt confident the 5020 offered the best of both worlds.
This year, the company hasn't changed much with the 5030UB. The price, the design, the features, all but one digit in the model number: identical. One thing has gotten better, however, and that's black level, which happens to be the most important aspect of picture quality. Not massively better -- not enough to pose a serious challenge to more expensive videophile favorites, namely the D-ILA JVCs and SXRD Sonys -- but better.
The 5030UB still throws out more light than anything in its class, allowing it to be used in situations aside from total darkness—unlike so many of those videophile favorites. It also boasts the accurate color and solid video processing we liked before, and beyond the picture, the package is compelling: included 3D glasses, all the expected setup options, even a sliding lens cover.
So Epson has another winner, and no matter how many projectors we test this year, it's tough to imagine another besting it for the Editors' Choice. We'll review a few more before we make it official though.
Editors' note, February 14, 2014: Epson has two versions of this projector on the market: the 5030UB and the 5030UBe. The differences between the two are the inclusion of a WirelessHD module and a $300 premium on the 5030UBe.
White and curvy in a generic way, the 5030UB is the kind of projector that looks best on a ceiling or otherwise hidden away, out of sight. It's not ugly per se, just uninspired compared to sleeker high-end units like the JVC DLA-X35. Large black vents, the only antidote to the white, flank the sizable lens, which is in turn dwarfed by its circular opening. That extra space leaves plenty of room for the lens to shift around, and a nifty lens cover snaps into place when the unit powers down.
Topside are the controls for lens shift, both manual and plagued by somewhat inexact, soft-feeling dials. I also wasn't impressed by the feel of focus and zoom, which lack the smoothness of some lens mechanisms.
The remote is massive and fully backlit, with a dedicated key for pretty much every function. No complaints there. Epson's menu system is nothing fancy, filled with esoteric adjustments and nested options that are, unfortunately, par for the projector course.
|Key TV features|
|Projection technology||LCD||Native resolution||1,920x1,080 (1080p)|
|Lumens rating||2,400||Iris control||Yes|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||Two pairs|
|Lens shift||Horizontal and vertical||Zoom and focus||Manual|
|Lamp lifespan||Up to 5,000 hours||Replacement lamp cost||$299|
|Other: Additional 3D glasses (model ELPGS03, $99 list)|
Among the three different projection technologies -- DLP, LCD, and LCoS -- Epson is firmly in the LCD camp. The 5030 features a 3LCD system, which as the name suggests uses separate red, green and blue panels to generate an image. It comes with an improved iris that's significantly less noisy than the one on the 2013 3020. This projector is less noisy in another way too: it's missing the 3020's onboard speakers.
Compared to its predecessor 5020 from last year, the main improvement is an almost doubling in contrast with the new Ultra Black image system. The contrast ratio specification has increased from 320,000:1 to 600,000:1, while the light output remains constant at 2,400 lumens. In other words, Epson is saying the black levels are much better now. Our testing shows they are better but not as much as the numbers might imply; see the next page for details.
The Epson 5030UB includes two pairs of RF active shutter 3D glasses in the box. And if you need to get additional glasses, you'll be happy to hear that the projector adheres to the Full HD 3D standard, making it compatible not only with Epson's own $99 glasses, but also with glasses from other makers that comply with the standard. We tested its predecessor the 5020 with the three we had in-house and all worked fine, including the value-priced $20 Samsung SSG-4100GBs (meaning the $18, 2013 SSG-5100GBs will also work), the excellent $53 Panasonic TY-ER3D4MUs, and the universal XpanD X104s. Epson's RF (radio frequency) is also a better technology for 3D because IR (infrared) requires line-of-sight that can be broken and has a shorter range. Check out our 3D glasses shootout for more information.
Setup: Complete with all the setup options I expect at this price, the Epson was simple to get configured and aligned from positions both above and below the screen. While only the front feet are adjustable, the vertical and horizontal lens shift which makes it much easier to set up than units that lack both. Unlike the JVC DLA-X35, however, all of those lens controls are manual as opposed to power-controlled. Of course I prefer these functions--at least focus, so you can easily tweak it from a vantage closer to the screen--to be motorized. I don't expect it at this price, however.
The 5030 has a slightly higher throw ratio than the step-down 3020 model, from between 1.34 and 2.87 times while also being able to display a maximum 300-inch screen size. With the 5030's spectacular light output, it should have no trouble filling very large screens with a punchy image.
Picture settings: THX certification is the most notable addition here. That set-it-and-forget-it picture mode, which we found the most accurate out of the box, joins modes Natural, Cinema, and Dynamic. When activating 3D content the projector offers three more options: 3D Dynamic, 3D Cinema, and 3D THX.
New for the 2013 models is a mode called Classic Black-and-White Cinema, which is designed to improve shades of gray on old movies without introducing false colors. Need more flexibility? The 5030 has 10 memory presets in case you accidentally reset your settings, or want to experiment with a "bright room" mode, for example.
For advanced setups, the projector offers an extensive number of controls, including a selection of Gamma settings and a Color Management System. We took advantage of both to better dial in color, but did miss the kind of detailed gamma control available on units like the JVC -- Epson's custom gamma didn't seem worth the hassle.
Our calibration also involved choosing the correct Iris setting. Especially on an LCD projector like the 5030UB, black levels benefit quite a bit from the iris. I measured an improvement from 0.0053 fL to a visibly darker 0.0015 fL when we switched the Iris from Off to either of the two On modes (Normal or High Speed). I chose Normal to minimize visible transitions, although watching quick-changing program material in High Speed I also didn't notice any such artifacts.