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Optoma HD81-LV review: Optoma HD81-LV

Optoma HD81-LV

Kevin Miller
6 min read

The competition among higher-end front projectors has hit fever pitch recently, partly because DLP has finally caught up to LCD and LCoS in delivering 1080p native resolution. Enter Optoma's flagship 1080p resolution DLP projector, the HD81-LV. This is one of the few projectors I have measured lately under $20,000 that actually delivers every line of resolution in a 1080p source. On the downside, I found that its best picture quality can only be achieved in smaller screen sizes, and furthermore it was quite difficult to set up correctly. If properly calibrated, however, the Optoma HD81-LV is capable of good overall performance, and its relatively low street price compared with other 1080p units makes up for some of its faults.


Optoma HD81-LV

The Good

Accurate color decoding for both SD and HD sources, very good video processing with included external processor; more connectivity than nearly all competing projectors.

The Bad

Poor gamma and grayscale tracking at high light output settings; very little flexibility for setup and installation; no vertical lens shift.

The Bottom Line

Although a good performer if you use it with a relatively small screen, the Optoma HD81-LV 1080p DLP projector is overly complex and difficult to set up and install.

Editors' Note: Optoma also makes and sells the older HD81. It's the same as the HD81-LV except for the following: its brightness rating is 1,400 Lumens (vs. the LV's 2,500), it lacks the LV's auto iris and automatic aspect ratio detection, it cannot format the image for an anamorphic lens, and its external color is silver.

The design of the HD81-LV itself is rather basic. It does have a small footprint, which means it will hide away on most ceilings without bringing any attention to itself. My review sample was finished in a gunmetal gray with sparkles on the top of the chassis, while the rest of the unit was a solid dark gray. Following in the vein of the ultra high end, the HD81-LV is packaged with an outboard video processor that acts as a video source selector as well. It has an all-black finish, with the exception of a small amount of silver trim out by the sides of the unit. The HD81-LV projector measures 16 inches wide by 4.6 inches tall by 12.2 deep inches and weighs 10 pounds, while the outboard processor measures 17 by 2.5 by 12 inches and weighs 9.2 pounds.

Optoma's remote control is relatively small with seemingly a zillion keys, all of which were undersized and less comfortable than I'd like to see. Once you hit any key, the remote becomes fully backlit, which does help with setup in a dark environment, and I appreciated the direct access keys for most of the important functions. The projector sports a vertically arrayed GUI or menu system, which is fairly easy and intuitive to navigate.

As a 1080p native resolution projector, the Optoma HD81-LV can deliver every last detail from 1080i and 1080p sources. Higher native resolution is especially important in a projector because the large screen size can really show off the extra detail. Like all somewhat affordable 1080p DLP units, the HD81-LV has a single DLP chip and uses the bulb-and-color-wheel arrangement, as opposed to the megabuck three-chip DLP models and LCoS and LCD projectors (more info).

Optoma throws in a plethora of picture-affecting features on the HD81-LV, most of which are dubious or downright harmful to picture quality. Features to avoid using or turning on include: Brilliant Color, Color Vividness, B/W extension, and Auto Gamma. One noticeably absent setup feature is vertical lens shift, an unfortunate omission for installers because it makes placement on the ceiling relative to the screen a bit easier. Vertical lens shift is found on every other DLP and LCD-based projector at or near the price point of the HD81-LV.

Useful features include three preset selectable color temperatures in addition to a fourth, User, that's adjustable. Picture modes include: User 1, 2, 3, and ISF Day and Night modes. There is no mention of how to create and/or access the ISF Day and Night modes in the manual. I assume, if it is like other displays, that it must be implemented by a professional installer via the RS-232 control port. Ten gamma setting choices give the user way too many ways to get this wrong. I found -5 to be the best, most CRT-like gamma curve. In the System Menu, under Projector, there's an Iris setting. This gives you the choice of Auto (which I don't recommend as it changes white and black depending on the content of the picture), Off, and On, with 16 setting choices. For my settings, click here or check out the Tips & Tricks section, but remember that I'm using an 80-inch wide Stewart Grayhawk screen, and your settings will vary widely according to screen size and material.

The HD81-LV also offers an anamorphic lens solution ($6,000 list) for constant height 235:1 scope screen applications. It is available as either a fixed lens solution or a motorized movable lens assembly that attaches to the projector chassis.

Connectivity on the HD81-LV is quite generous, although more elaborate than most projectors because of the external processor box. On the back panel of the processor there are three HDMI inputs, two component video inputs, two RGBHV inputs with BNCs, two S-Video, two composite video inputs, and an RS-232 control port. There is a second RS-232 port that connects to the projector for communication. Unusual for a front projection system are the front panel inputs on the processor. An S-Video, composite video, and 15-pin VGA input are all housed beneath a flip-down door on the front.

Optoma includes an RS-232 cable and an HDMI cable, both six feet long, to run between the box and the projector, but you'll have to supply your own cables if you want more separation between the two. The HD81-LV can also incorporate AV receivers (with or without HDMI connectivity), so you can have the box switch video and the receiver handle audio processing properly.

The Optoma HD81-LV's picture quality had its good and bad points, but it's not among the top tier of 1080p models we've tested. Color fidelity, if the picture is adjusted correctly, can be quite good overall. Unfortunately, when the projector is asked to fill a large screen, its grayscale goes into the toilet, causing discoloration in bright scenes and blacks to brighten significantly. Therefore, I recommend that it be paired with small screens not exceeding 92 inches diagonal, depending on the screen material. The HD81-LV's lack of vertical lens shift is a negative, but diligence in the installation can make up for that.

The initial picture quality of the Optoma HD81-LV left a lot to be desired, but that's to be expected. During setup, I discovered the unfortunate truth that the HD81-LV is not capable of producing bright pictures if you want them to be accurate. Even with the Iris off and contrast toned down, grayscale tracking and gamma suffered badly, and blacks were way too bright. With the Iris all the way up to 16, blacks looked much better, but light output was unacceptably low. I settled on a compromise with the Iris set in the middle of the range at 8. This yielded a relatively linear grayscale without much color shift, and a barely acceptable 9 footlamberts of light output on a 6-foot wide Stewart Grayhawk RS screen.

After a thorough ISF-style calibration, I found blacks and grayscale tracking acceptable, but certainly not exceptional, compared with other 1080p projectors. On the other hand, primary colors, although by no means perfect, were more accurate than those of most of the competition. Color decoding was accurate for both SD and HD material, as long as Color Space was set to Auto.

I watched mainly Blu-ray DVDs with my Samsung BD-P1200 set to output 1080p. Chapter 2 of Casino Royale is a very bright, fast-moving scene. This scene was rendered cleanly and smoothly thanks to clean video processing, and there was plenty of snap and pop, indicating solid contrast ratio. Chapter 7, the scene at Miami airport, has a combination of bright, colorful, and dark material all in the space of a few minutes. Shadow detail in the darker parts of this scene was relatively good, especially considering the Iris was set to 8 in the middle of the range.

Another awesome transfer on Blu-ray is The Departed and Chapter 2 is a good scene for detail and color saturation. The detail on the uniforms, along with the clock and text on the test paper, looked impressive indeed on the HD81-LV. The HD81-LV is also one of the only projectors in its class to fully resolve a 1080p resolution test pattern with no loss whatsoever. Most of the competition rolls off some of the resolution, which means you don't get all the detail. This is one of the HD81-LV's strong points.

Before color temp (20/80) 5,950/7,685K Average
After color temp 6,945/6,500 Average
Before grayscale variation 1178K Poor
After grayscale variation 211K Average
Color of red (x/y) 0.659/0.323 Poor
Color of green 0.285/0.629 Average
Color of blue 0.144/0.065 Good
Overscan 0 percent Good
Black-level retention All patterns stable Good
Defeatable edge enhancement Yes Good
480i 2:3 pull-down detection Yes Good


Optoma HD81-LV

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 7