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Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020 review: Great picture, value goes beyond the dark

The Epson 5020UB projector offers excellent value for the money, with a fantastic picture in 2D and 3D alike.

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Ty Pendlebury
Ty_Pendlebury.jpg

Ty Pendlebury

Editor

Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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10 min read

Editor's note: Epson has two versions of this projector on the market: the 5020UB and the 5020UBe. The differences between the two are the inclusion of a WirelessHD module on the 5020UBe and a $300 premium.

Epson_PowerLite_5020_35509301_35509300_13.jpg
8.2

Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020

The Good

The <b>Epson 5020</b> 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.

The Bad

Black levels not quite as deep as some competitors; auto iris required for peak performance; iris still makes some noise; WirelessHD option (5020UBe) not as good a value.

The Bottom Line

The Epson 5020UB projector offers excellent picture quality for the money, and is versatile enough for both dark and moderately lit rooms.

First impressions count, and in the case of the Epson 5020 they're dead-on. This projector's design initially struck me with its kidney-grille facial resemblance to a certain luxury car, and it performs like one.

The image quality of the 5020 is characterized by excellent color, prodigious light output, and very good black levels. You can pay thousands more than the $2,500 or so the 5020 will set you back, but you will be able to get only incremental improvements in the most important area: black levels.

When compared to the cheaper Epson 3020 and BenQ W1070, the 5020 represents a big jump in picture quality. But from the 5020 to the next tier, occupied by the likes of the significantly more expensive Sony VPL-HW50ES and JVC DLA-X35S, there isn't as large a leap. It's also better than any of them in a room with some ambient light, making it the most versatile projector we've tested. Bang for buck, the Epson represents the best balance we've reviewed yet between price and image quality.

Epson ups the value proposition further by including a number of useful extras, namely two pairs of 3D glasses and in the case of the 5020UBe a wireless HDMI hub. But while WirelessHD is fun, it's not a significant upgrade. Spend the $300 saved on something nice instead.

If you're looking for a versatile projector at a great price and don't demand the ultimate in dark-room picture quality, the Epson 5020UB is our go-to recommendation. Unless you want wireless connectivity, we don't recommend the 5020UBe as highly.

Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020UB (pictures)

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Design
If the Epson 3020 had a touch of the Eve from "Wall-E" about it, then imagine Eve crossed with Darth Vader. That's the 5020. One of our readers commented that the 3020 looked like a BMW with its "kidney grilles", and the 5020 makes the comparisons more obvious, with its black fins evoking the front grill of something like a BMW M3. The 5020 has a better design in other areas, too. The 3020 leaks a lot of light out to the side while the 5020 leaks almost none -- great if it's sitting next to you as it's less distracting, not to mention the better fidelity in a dark room.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Aside from the fins, the next most prominent feature is the Fujinon lens, which is impressively large and equipped with a motorized lens cover (a rarity at this price). The projector is roughly the same size as the 3020, at 18.4 inches wide, 15.6 inches deep, and 6.2 high.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The remote that ships with the Epson is identical on both units. It's large, fully backlit, and festooned with buttons -- though you'll probably only use the inputs section at the top and the Menu button most of the time.

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)

Features
Among the three different projection technologies -- DLP, LCD, and LCoS -- Epson is firmly in the LCD camp. The 5020 features a 3LCD system, which as the name suggests uses separate RGB panels to generate an image. It comes with an improved iris that's significantly less noisy than the one on the 3020.

The Epson 5020 includes two pairs of RF active shutter glasses in the box. And if you need to get additional glasses, you'll be happy to hear that the projector (unlike most others) adheres to the Full HD 3D standard, making it compatible not only with Epson's own glasses ($99, above), but also with glasses from other makers that comply with the standard. We tested it with the three we had in-house and all worked fine, including the $19 Samsung SSG-4100GBs, the excellent $60 Panasonic TY-ER3D4MUs, and the universal XpanD X104s ($70 with RF dongle. 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.

The projector offers a couple of step-ups from the 3020, beginning with a much higher contrast ratio. Epson calls its system UltraBlack, and which is denoted by the "UB" in the product name. You also get a Frame Interpolation mode (aka Soap Opera Effect) and a slightly higher lumens specification. Despite the small difference in the two projectors lumens specs (2,300 vs. 2,400), we found the 5020 significantly brighter in our testing.

Meanwhile, the Epson 5020 is missing the onboard speakers of the lesser model. You could read that as an indication that the more expensive projector is for "serious home theater," rather than a "movie machine you wheel out on weekends."

Sarah Tew/CNET

Setup: The Epson comes with a number of setup options that rival the more expensive Sony, if not the JVC. While only the front feet are adjustable, the 5020 has a vertical and horizontal lens shift which makes it as simple as the Sony is to set up. You naturally also get zoom and focus rings built in. Unlike the JVC, it's all manual as opposed to power-controlled. The product 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 5020's spectacular light output, it should have no trouble filling very large screens with a punchy image.

The projector includes memory presets Sarah Tew/CNET

Picture settings: Another feature that the Epson 5020 has, which the 3020 lacks, is THX certification. That set-it-and-forget-it picture mode, which we found exceedingly 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. For advanced setups, the projector offers an extensive number of controls, including tweakable Gamma settings and a Color Management System.

Need more flexibility? The 5020 has 10 memory presets in case you accidentally reset your settings, or want to experiment with a "bright room" mode, for example.

Connectivity: The 5020 offers a decent selection of inputs including twin HDMI ports, component and AV jacks, and a VGA adapter. A USB port is also included, designed mainly for charging the 3D glasses.

Pay an extra $300 for the 5020e 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.

Picture quality
The Epson 5020 offers a dark-room picture nearly as good as those of the JVC DLA-X35 and Sony VPL-HW50 for significantly less money. The only major advantage exhibited by those two is a slightly darker overall black level.

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. Colors are excellent -- very close to our reference JVC X35 -- and black levels are much improved on the cheaper Epson, but with a better degree of pop than the JVC. Yes, the JVC has better black level and overall contrast, but there isn't the same jump in dark-room picture quality again that there is between the two Epsons. Turn on the lights, meanwhile, and the light output potential of the 5020 outdoes any of the others.

Comparison models (details)
Epson PowerLite 3020 3LCD projector
BenQ W1070 DLP projector
JVC DLA-X35 D-ILA projector (LCoS)

Black and white level: While was relatively I enthused about the black levels of the BenQ W1070, they are nothing compared to this Epson projector. It's like upgrading from a fixed-gear bicycle to a motorbike (which makes the JVC, in turn, a Ducati).

To get the best black levels, you'll have to use the Epson's auto iris feature. I complained loudly about the sound of the iris opening and closing on the 3020, but the 5020's was much quieter, although it would still be audible during quiet passages of a movie (the Sony's HW50's auto iris was totally silent, in comparison). My colleague David Katzmaier and I looked hard for overt "iris effects," where parts of the image darkened or lightened in an abrupt or otherwise unnatural way, but didn't see any.

In the opening shots of the "creation" section of "The Tree of Life," the 5020's black levels were able to capture most of the starkness of the images that the 3020 missed. Of course the JVC looked fantastic as well, and visibly darker than either Epson.

Switching to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II" (57:29), a room full of furniture looks inconsequential on the 3020 while on the 5020 it really pops. Compared to the JVC, the Epson's iris helps it muster up more light and shade while the JVC looks a tad less "exciting," but more natural and pleasing to some viewers. The darker black of the JVC did make its image appear less washed-out than the 5020's, although the Epson was still very good.

Switching to an earlier scene in the same movie, as Voldemort's army amasses on a hill (45:55) the differences between the Epson 5020 and the JVC were more apparent. The JVC has a much darker background, while the Epson is able to pick out faces a bit better and illuminates some more of the gloom around them. While the JVC is more accurate -- from a technical standpoint our equipment has told us so -- the Epson's picture had a bit more impact in this extremely dark scene.

The Epson delivered excellent light output. At full bore, in the Dynamic mode showing an full-white screen, it was capable of 80 footLambert (fL), which is almost twice what the JVC and Sony were capable of. In lumens, a measurement that eliminates the variable of my screen, that works out to 2,628 (thanks to Chris Heinonen for the lumens calculator).

Color accuracy: While the 3020 had very good color, the 5020 ups the descriptor to "excellent." Black levels aside, there was very little to tell the JVC and 5020 apart in a direct A/B comparison. In "The Tree of Life" (Chapter 5, 37:18), the mother lies down on the grass and the combination of her pale skin tone, blue clothing, and the surrounding green make a great test of color. The two projectors looked almost identical in this fashion, and any differences were more easily attributable to black level and its effect on color perception, than actual color accuracy differences.

Moving to the "resurrection" scene from "Harry Potter" (Chapter 22, 1:31:38), as he awakes in a cavernous white room to see Dumbledore, the two projectors again showed they could reject the overt green of the 3020 and present more of the gradations of the opening shot. The 5020 also lacked any overt blue tinges in its black areas, another distinct advantage over the 3020.

Video processing: Like the 3020 before it, the 5020 wears its cinema prowess on its sleeve with excellent performance in our video tests. The aircraft carrier test from "I Am Legend" was rendered with with the smooth but buttery motion of correct 1080p/24 cadence.

When I engaged the projector's frame interpolation feature, its motion resolution test came out quite well, with a score of 650 lines. While that's twice as good a result as when I turned interpolation off, leaving it on means you'll also have to live with the smoothing Soap Opera Effect. I recommend leaving the feature off unless you're watching sports or other material that originates on video.

Lastly, though it's not an official test, the Epson was able to translate the smooth gradations of the sunrise over the alien planet in "The Tree of Life" (Ch. 4, 24:28). At times it revealed a bit too much detail in some shadows, however, as meant-to-be-hidden contours sometimes came to the surface.

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 which I would consider comfortable to watch watching 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 in the projectors' default brightest picture modes and there was no contest; the brighter Epson looked punchier and better in nearly every way. Compared against the cheaper (albeit brighter than the JVC) Epson 3020 and the BenQ, the differences weren't as stark, but the 5020 was still superior.

To be clear, any projector will look much better in a completely dark room than one with any light at all, and the 5020 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: From "Hugo" to "The Green Hornet," the Epson 3020 showed that it was capable of excellent 3D images. We saw almost zero crosstalk with the Epson glasses, and no discernible flicker. We also tested other glasses and found that the YOUniversals worked just as well while the Samsung's showed a little bit of crosstalk. But at only $20, they're still a great option for the kids.

GEEK BOX: Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.003 Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.17 Good
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 1.8292 Good
Near-black error (5%) 0.273 Good
Dark gray error (20%) 1.168 Good
Bright gray error (70%) 1.004 Good
Avg. color error 1.2602 Good
Red error 0.931 Good
Green error 0.914 Good
Blue error 1.085 Good
Cyan error 1.741 Good
Magenta error 2.04 Good
Yellow error 0.85 Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
1080i De-interlacing (film) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 650 Average
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 330 Poor
Input lag (Calibrated mode) 95.1 Poor

Epson PowerLite 5020 calibration files by ty_at_cnet

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8.2

Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Value 9
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