The Next Picture Show: DLP versus LCD, round 2
Posted Jul 1, 2003

I was recently introduced to some cool digital video interface (DVI) DVD (totally digital DVD playback) technology, and that pointed me to some interesting Pro AV-Home Theater chat boards. You know what those places are like, where everyone online has a deep, feverish, near-religious belief in some techno-aspect of video equipment, and where anyone who disagrees must endure verbal denigration, ad hominem attacks, and nasty comments about their their mother. Sifting among the insults, I found some interesting perspectives. Most intriguing were the opinions that digital light processing (DLP) had won the image wars a long time ago in terms of what's best for a DVD-based home theater. Could that be true?

I needed to get an answer for myself, so I acquired two of the latest and greatest little home theater projectors announced at CES and NAB—one DLP-based and one LCD-based—for a little DVD shootout. The DLP projector I chose was the Optoma H56, and the LCD projector was the 16:9 aspect ratio Sanyo PLV-Z1. I picked these because they were both about the same size and power, and therefore targeted at the same DVD crowd. I have reviewed a lot of DLP projectors in the past, and I like the big three-chip units because they have outstanding image quality. But in all my searching, I've never been able to find a low-cost, one-chip system that both makes decent color and is able to provide adequate brightness.

Three-channel systems—with separate red, green, and blue light paths—seem to have an inherent advantage when it comes to making light and color. I don't think it matters whether those three channels use LCDs or DLPs for the imager. As long as it's done right, three channels just plain makes sense. The problem with one-chip DLPs is that they rely on a spinning color wheel to make both color and light, and the result is all too often washed-out colors. However, I have visited Optoma's factory in Taiwan and spoken to their engineers at length about the need to provide excellent color quality along with brightness, and they promised to do it right in the H56.

Sanyo has always understood light and color, as well as aspect ratio and price, and they announced their Z1 at an MSRP of only $2,495, versus Optoma H56's MSRP of $4,995. On one hand, that means that Optoma can pack twice as much techno-power into their unit versus the cheaper LCD projector. You can spend a lot more money on both one-chip projectors and on three-panel LCDs. You can probably spend even less if you search the Web for discounts.

Anyway, spending that much on a 16:9 LCD projector from Sanyo gets what's called a quarter of HD resolution—964x544 pixels in three 0.7-inch LCDs. On the other hand, the Optoma unit has only one, 4:3 aspect ratio, 1024x768-pixel digital micro mirror device. The Optoma may have more resolution in its one chip, but the Sanyo has more chips. But to make the same 16:9 aspect image, Optoma has to turn off a bunch of pixels top and bottom. The end result of all that is that the Optoma projector delivers resolutions that wind up being quite similar to what you get from the Sanyo.

The Optoma and Sanyo units are actually close in terms of performance, too. The Sanyo Z1 is supposed to make 700 ANSI lumens with an 800-to-1 on-off contrast ratio using a 130-watt lamp. The Optoma is spec'd at 1000 ANSI lumens with a 2000-to-1 contrast ratio from a 200-watt lamp. When I ran both units side-by-side, however, I got results that were slightly different from the manufacturer's specs. I found that the Sanyo Z1 had a lamp with two modes—a dimmer, but quiet "theater-dark mode" and a brighter, noisy fan mode—and I measured about 20% difference between the two modes. I found that the Z1 made something over 600 lumens with the noisy fan setting and over 500 lumens in the quiet mode, with close to 700-to-1 contrast ratio along with lots of color saturation.

The Optoma H56 only has one lamp mode, and it makes a lot more fan noise than the Sanyo does in quiet mode. This is because Optoma uses a 200-watt lamp with almost twice the wattage of Sanyo's de-tuned 130 watt lamp—and that extra heat needs to get pumped out of the projector. Anyway, with all that fan noise, I measured a bit over 600 ANSI lumens on screen with the H56 along with a 1211-to-1 contrast ratio. That's a lot less than the specs, though it also made the resulting shoot-out quite even.

So what's the bottom line? I ran the same DVD (Mars Attacks in wide-screen mode) into both projectors simultaneously, and the two units made similar brightness and colors on the same-sized screen. I was quite impressed with the colors in the one-chip system from Optoma. The H56's colors were right there with the LCD's in most cases, except for blue, which lacked color saturation, and black, which seemed to be a bit greenish. The LCD projector from Sanyo made almost perfect colors and had none of the "overly pink skin tones" I've seen in the online anti-LCD rants. But the Optoma, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, acquitted itself quite well. That projector delivered an on-screen clarity that not only met, but exceeded, my expectations. Even more surprisingly, the Optoma surpassed the Z1's on-screen image, which had a hint of the LCD screen-door.

Maybe the H56's great image comes from the "world's first double data rate" processing and a few more pixels (as touted by Optoma), or maybe it comes from what appears to be better video processing along with a better contrast ratio. Either way, if you want to spend more money for a great image, the H56 is for you. On the other hand, if you want a cheap 16:9 LCD projector that has none of the faults you read about on-line, the Sanyo Z1 is your projector.