Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5030UB review: Projector's pretty picture hits high and low notes
Last year our favorite bang-for-the-buck projector was this Epson's predecessor. The new version is mostly the same, with one crucial improvement: an even better picture.
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
|3D glasses included
|Horizontal and vertical
|Zoom and focus
|Up to 5,000 hours
|Replacement lamp cost
|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.
Connectivity: The 5030 offers a decent selection of inputs including twin HDMI ports, component and AV jacks, and a VGA input. A USB port is also included, designed mainly for charging the 3D glasses.
Pay an extra $300 for the 5030UBe and you'll receive the WirelessHD system, designed to transmit 1080p signals in lieu of an HDMI cable. It consists of a wireless receiver onboard the projector and a transmitter hub, which includes five HDMI inputs, one HDMI output, and an optical audio jack. While I didn't test the Wireless HDMI system on this projector, I expect it would perform identically to the one shipped with the 3020e; that is, works great, but it needs line of sight.
There's not much the Epson 5030UB does wrong. Its black level is superb, lending the image more pop and contrast than just about any projector at or below its price range. It also blasts out more light than any decent, somewhat affordable home theater projector we've seen--not presentation-worthy, but plenty to combat normal room lighting and deliver a watchable image. Its main weakness is the inability to match the contrast and punch of D-ILA rivals like the JVC DLA-X35. But for the 5030's price, that flaw is easy to overlook.
|Comparison models (details)
|Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020UB
|D-ILA (LCoS) projector
Black and white level: The 5030UB is capable of delivering a deep, impressive shade of black. Compared to the two projectors above, it sat in the middle, albeit closer to the lighter 5020UB than the suberbly dark JVC.
First off, Epson's claim of improved blacks over the 5020UB holds water in program material, but the difference was not drastic. Watching my favorite black level test, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," the 5030UB was a bit darker in the letterbox bars and darkest parts, such as the massing of the army overlooking Hogwart's, while the 5020 looked just a bit more washed out. In mixes dark and light, high-contrast scenes, such as the Room of Requirement, the difference was easier to spot but still subtle.
The 5030UB's inability to match the JVC's depth of black was more obvious. Yes, the two measured nearly the same in the chart below, but that's with a full black screen. With program content, invariably more varied, the JVC's superior contrast was clear. I watched selections from Chapter 12 and 13 of the very dark "Potter," for example, and even in the dimmest scenes the black of the JVC's letterbox bars and dark areas was much truer and more lightless than on the Epson.
The same went for brighter mixed scenes, such as when Hermione and Ron cause the flood in the hidden chamber (52:00). Again the JVC won with its deeper blacks. Highlights between the two were similarly bright, and the Epson revealed very slightly more detail in shadows. The JVC's shadow detail was still excellent, and it didn't crush or obscure any information near black -- the Epson just revealed a bit more. That said, the JVC clearly won at producing a pleasing dark-room image, and suffered no major tradeoffs.
Like its predecessor, the Epson 5030UB delivered excellent light output. At full bore, in the Dynamic mode showing a full-white screen, it was capable of 82 footLambert (fL), which is almost twice what the JVC and Sony VPL-HW50ES were capable of, and a near-match for the 5020UB. In lumens, a measurement that eliminates the variable of my screen, that works out to 2,696 (thanks to Chris Heinonen for the lumens calculator).
Color accuracy: No problems here. The 5030UB delivered the same color accuracy as its predecessor in both dark scenes and light, and a bit more pop and saturation due to its deeper blacks. It also managed to avoid the 5020's slight bluish tinge to black areas, like the letterbox.
One of the most colorful scenes of "Potter," Snape's dream sequence in Chapter 19, showed accurate skin tones, lush greens in the grass and leaves, and realistic blue in the sky. I'd give the slight edge to the Epson over the JVC for accuracy here, but the latter was still very accurate, and its color more pleasing overall due to its better blacks, again.
Video processing: The Epson performed well in this category too, and offers a surprisingly flexible array of processing modes for a projector. The Frame Interpolation setting controls the dejudder processing, which as usual introduces various levels of smoothing -- known as the Soap Opera Effect -- and with it the reduction of image blurring/better motion resolution.
In the Off setting, the Epson delivered proper 1080p/24 cadence in our test from "I Am Legend," handling the pan over the aircraft carrier as well as I'd expect from any high-end display. On the other hand that mode scored the worst motion resolution with just 300 lines, the equivalent to a 60Hz LCD TV. On the other hand, the Medium and High settings scored a more respectable 600 lines -- what I'd expect from a 120Hz LCD TV -- and introduced significant smoothing/S.O.E.
The Low setting may appeal to motion resolution hawks who also detest smoothing. Yes, cadence was a bit smoother and less choppy/film-like than Off, but it was pretty close and took me a pass or two to distinguish between the two settings. Low also manages the same motion resolution score as the others. I'm more of a film purist so I'd probably stick with Off, but if blurring really bothers you, Low is a great alternative.
Like many projectors the 5030UB lacks a Game mode, and its input lag measured poorly at 117 milliseconds in the calibrated (THX) mode.
Bright lighting: The Epson is a very bright projector, which makes it better able to compete against ambient light when filling a screen. In fact, it's the only one I've tested so far (along with the 5020UB) which I would consider comfortable to watch in a moderately lit room. By "moderately," think a lamp or two, mild overhead lights, or an indirect window during the day -- the cloudier the better.
We compared it directly to the JVC under just that kind of ambient lighting, and in the projectors' default brightest picture modes and there was no contest; the brighter Epson looked punchier and better in nearly every way.
To be clear, any projector will look much better in a completely dark room than one with any light at all, and the 5030 is no exception. When we opened a window enough so light struck the screen directly, for example, the Epson's image washed out terribly to the point where it started to disappear. Certain screens can help address this issue, but no amount of light output or screen magic will make for a high-quality projected image in a bright room. If you can't control ambient light, you're still better off with a TV instead of a projector.
Like most projectors, the Epson's Dynamic mode suffered from an overly green cast. We don't calibrate for a bright room, but switching to the slightly dimmer Living Room preset helped color quite a bit. A bit of tweaking could probably assist even further.
3D: The Epson delivered a very good 3D performance, a real plus since 3D on a projector is so much more impressive than on a small screen. I checked out "Hugo" (still one of the most demanding 3D Blu-rays with its complex shots and extreme depth), and that bugaboo of active 3D, crosstalk, was comfortably minimized by the 5030UB.
As Hugo's gaze falls on Georges Méliès from his perch behind the clock, for example, the tinker's sleeve and collar show only the barest hint of the double image. A bit later, as Hugo reaches for the toy, his popped-out hand again showed only minimal ghosting. Same for the tuning pegs on the guitar (7:49) and the head of the inspector as he threatened Hugo (44:27). The JVC, for its part, also handled these scenes extremely well, but its ghosting was a bit more visible in general, and thus slightly more distracting. All told, the Epson was one of the best displays I've seen at reducing crosstalk.
Color and black levels were very good in the default THX 3D setting (we don't calibrate for 3D sources). Of course, one big advantage of having plenty of light output is the ability to overcome the inherently darker 3D image when viewed through glasses. Epson's secs themselves were comfortable enough, but someone like me who wears prescription lenses underneath might be more comfortable removing the nose support -- a simple process.
|Black luminance (0%)
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)
|Dark gray error (20%)
|Bright gray error (70%)
|Avg. color error
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)
|1080i De-interlacing (film)
|Motion resolution (max)
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)
|Input lag (Game mode)