Here at The Digital Bits, we’ve been reviewing Blu-rays displayed on a Panasonic PT-AE1000U 1080p LCD projector for a few years now (since 2007 to be specific), and we’ve long been impressed with the unit’s handling of image color and contrast. But in the years since its release, the state of the art in home theater projection has advanced tremendously, both in terms of the affordability of hardware and sheer display capability. Knowing that more and more of our readers may be interested in the idea of front projection for their own home theaters, we wanted to pick a good unit to review that’s a very strong contender in both respects. Epson’s recent 8700UB 3-chip LCD projector is our choice. Since its debut in late 2010, it’s garnered lots of attention and high marks from critical enthusiasts.
[Editor’s Note: Before I talk too much about the projector, I should note that this review will be geared less for high-end and technically knowledgeable enthusiasts and more towards the average home theater fan – those that aren’t as familiar with projector-based systems but might have an interest is upgrading to one from typical flat panels. If you want greater detail, there are many good technical reviews of the 8700UB online, and we encourage you to check them if you’re interested in the unit – you’ll find a couple linked near the end of this review.]
Epson might not be the first name that comes to mind to when you think of consumer electronics manufacturers in the home theater space, since they don’t make plasma, LCD or LED flat panel displays, but they actually do own a sizable chunk of the front projector market. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that Epson manufactures most of the LCD chips used in other brands of projectors. That breadth of experience pays off here in their own product line. With an MSRP of $2,199 – fairly well priced in the moderate range for such a device – Epson’s 8700UB LCD projector packs a lot of value, with specs and performance equal (or close) to that of projectors of twice the price.
From a size standpoint, the 8700UB is very comparable to the AE1000U. It measures about 18” wide, a little over 15” deep and about 6” tall. Unlike the 1000U (which is black), the projector’s body is white, which actually blends better with most ceilings.
Installation is a breeze – especially if you already have an installed ceiling mount. It was a very quick matter for me to swap the 1000U for the 8700UB on our Chief projector mount – the universal adaptor fitted quickly and easily to the mounting points on the bottom of the unit. Once installed, all that was required was to power up the unit, set it for a front ceiling mounting position and align the lens settings for our screen (using the horizontal and vertical lens shift adjustments). From start to finish, the whole process took about 30 minutes.
The 8700UB offers a nice array of input options, including 2 HDMI and 1 each of RCA component, S-Video, standard RCA composite and PC (D-Sub 15-pin). Like most such projectors, it also includes an RS-232c port (D-Sub 9-pin) for connection to home automation systems. The HDMI ports are 1.3a, so they allow Deep Color. This projector is NOT designed to display 3D content, so if that’s really important to you, it could be a deal-breaker. My own perspective is that 3D still represents such a small portion of the market – and very high-quality content is still relatively limited – that it’s probably not worth paying a premium for 3D capability in a home theater projector at the moment. For at least the next couple of years, until the technology matures more, you’d be better off simply getting a 3D-capable flat panel instead.
The 8700UB’s remote is light and very simple to use. A button at the top-right allows you to toggle on the backlight for as long as you need it – useful in a dark viewing environment. You have options for switching inputs, navigating menus and quickly adjusting all of the various picture attributes. A dedicated button even calls up the various test patterns you need for calibration and fine image adjustments.
The 8700UB’s internal lamp cooling fan is a little louder than that of the 1000U, but I don’t find it to be an issue. I’ve not once noticed it during typical movie viewing, and unless you’re sitting right next to or underneath it, I doubt you would.
As I noted in my review of the AE1000U, it’s critically important when you choose a front projection system to control the ambient light in your viewing room as much as possible. While projectors don’t require total darkness, the darker you can make your room the better. To get the best display performance, you never want your projector’s lamp competing with bright lights or sunlight from an unshielded window. Think of it like this – when you go to a movie theater, the room is completely dark. A front projection system is designed to emulate that theater experience, so you want your viewing room nice and dark at home too.
Choosing the right screen material is also important – you want to match it as much as possible to your projector’s capabilities. We continue to use a 110” diagonal Tensioned Contour Electrol from the Da-Lite, made with High Contrast Cinema Perf material, which is designed to enhance black levels.
The screen is also micro-perforated, which allows us to position our sound system’s front – and particularly the center channel – speakers directly behind the screen to achieve the most accurate soundstage without compromising the audio quality.
Frankly, one of the most impressive things about the Epson 8700UB is how accurately it displays its images right out of the box, in most of its preset display modes. THX mode in particular is probably good enough for most average viewers right from the get go, with just slight brightness and contrast tweaks needed to customize the image for your particular viewing space and screen. (Note that other available preset modes include Dynamic, Living Room, Theater, Theater Black 1, Theater Black 2 and x.v. Color). For those of you who – like me – simply must calibrate your display to absolute perfection (or have professional calibration done) to ensure accuracy, this is very easily done with the available adjustment options, the remote and any of the many fine available BD calibration discs on the market. Thankfully, you can actually start your calibration from THX mode and tweak from there, so you’re essentially already 90-95% of the way to perfect without doing anything – it takes only very minor color adjustments and you’ve got it nailed.
I’ll tell you, I was astonished at the improvement the 8700UB offered in terms of contrast and black level performance over the 1000U. While the 1000U delivered a contrast ratio of up to 11,000:1, the 8700UB delivers up to a stunning 200,000:1 – obviously variable depending on the mode you choose, but still no small improvement overall. As enthusiasts will know, black levels are most important in very dark scenes, and it’s here where the difference becomes truly apparent. Instead of the shadows appearing crushed, significantly more detail becomes visible. The darkest image areas are truly, deeply black, but there’s a much more subtle and broad range of blacks in other dark areas. More technical reviewers have claimed that the 8700UB’s black level performance is as good as (or better than) anything else in its price range, and I believe it.
Epson’s spec sheet claims the 8700UB’s 200-watt lamp will deliver 1,600 lumens, with a lamp life of up to 4,000 hours, but of course that will also vary depending on which mode you choose and your own calibration settings. You can change the lamp quickly and easily without pulling the projector off the mount – the access panel is right on top (the bottom of the unit if you use a ceiling mount). Replacement lamps (model number: V13H010L49) run about $300 each – fairly typical for such things.
Like most LCD projectors, when you adjust image focus at its absolute sharpest setting, you’ll notice a slight “screen-door” effect in the image. This mesh-like visual artifact is caused by the fact that you’re actually seeing the fine separation lines between the projector’s pixels. Panasonic dealt with this in the 1000U by applying a special coating to the lens, which essentially rendered the effect invisible. Epson doesn’t include such a coating on the 8700UB’s lens, so what’s required is a very slight focal adjustment to the lens – just enough so the effect disappears in the brightest areas, but so the displayed image is still appropriately detailed. It takes a light hand as it’s a subtle adjustment, but it’s easy to do.
Of course, everyone has their own favorite demo material for testing the video performance of a display or projector, and I’ve certainly run the 8700UB through its paces using such Blu-rays as Blade Runner, Baraka, Ben-Hur, Avatar, Star Wars and many others. The 8700UB blew me away in EVERY case, greatly improving upon the image quality I experienced with the 1000U – which was itself no slouch. The improvements were not only noticeable, they were truly eye-opening. The 8700UB’s color, contrast and black level performance is just breathtaking. And when you consider that that the 1000U shipped just four years ago with an original MSRP of $5,999 (and a sale price of $3,999), the fact that you’re getting such dramatically improved performance with the 8700UB – and for only $2,199 – shows you just how far and how fast the quality and value of these LCD projectors has improved.
You can drive the 8700UB with video sources in NTSC, NTSC4.43, PAL, M-PAL, N-PAL, PAL60 and SECAM, at resolutions ranging from 480i to 1080p. If I had one tiny nitpick with the unit it’s that it takes a little longer than some other projectors to sync up with new video sources when you select them (or when, say, a Blu-ray switches from 1080p to 480), but once it does lock on the 8700UB is rock solid.
A couple of other quick notes: The 8700UB supports the use of anamorphic lenses for you very high-end enthusiasts who might want to do so. Also, Epson provides a 2 year warranty on the projector.
Here are a couple links to other opinions on this projector: Projector Reviews gave the Epson 8700UB a “Hot Product Award”. And Projector Central deems it “Highly Rated” with 5 Stars in performance, value and ease of use.
My own bottom line is simple: The Epson 8700UB is an absolutely fantastic 3-chip LCD Full HD projector. It delivers tremendous performance and value by today’s standards, for a price that’s very affordable and (at least in the same product category) darned tough to beat.
Video Performance: A
Build Quality: A-
Ease of Use: A+
Overall Rating: A
[Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for a great online retailer for projectors and related accessories, I’ve been dealing with the folks at Projector Point.com for many years. Not only have our longtime friends there always been a great help to us personally, they’ve always treated Bits readers who have dealt with them well too. Their customer service is top-notch. Rest assured, we’re not getting any kind of kickback or commission on sales through their website, so I can tell you that honestly and unreservedly. Projector Point currently offers the 8700UB for just $1,879 (a full $300 off the MSRP), and they’re including a free extra lamp (another $300 value) with the unit until the end of March 2012. If you’re interested in this or any other home theater projector, be sure to give them a look. Tell them The Bits sent you!]
- Bill Hunt