Epson Ensemble HD home theater system

The Short Form
$6,999 (as tested) / ENSEMBLEHD.COM / 800-463-7766
Snapshot
The only affordable, fully integrated, custom-style home theater system we've seen. The sound and video performance is solid, and it's fairly easy to operate from a single remote.
Plus
• Custom look and convenience • Do-it-yourself price • Convincing sound for movies and TV • Solid video performance
Minus
• No Blu-ray Disc version (yet) • Music performance falls a little flat
Key Features
• Screen/front-speaker module: (3) 1-in horn tweeters, (4) 4 1/2-in woofers; 100-in (diagonal) screen, 76 lb • Projector/surround-speaker assembly: (2) 4-in coaxial speakers; 26 7/8 in wide, 27 1/4 lb • Subwoofer: 10-in woofer, 150-watt amplifier; 14 7/8 in wide, 65 lb • A/V controller: Inputs: (2) HDMI, component-video; AM/FM tuner; 13 1/2 in wide; 7 1/2 lb

Home theater enthusiasts fall into two classes: custom and do-it-yourself. The custom guys hire an installer to hide their gear in closets or behind false walls of designer fabric, and they have $10,000 touchscreen controllers that are simple enough for a senile Shih Tzu to use. The do-it-yourselfers' systems look like the returns pile at Best Buy, and no one can operate them except for the guys who set them up.

What separates the two classes is money. Almost everyone would love to have a great-looking system that springs to life at the touch of a button. Sadly, the economics of the custom-installation business have pushed the entry fee to a bare minimum of $20,000, and my installer pals tell me a $50,000 minimum is more common.

Epson's Ensemble HD is the first system I've seen that delivers a custom home theater experience at a price do-it-yourselfers can afford: $6,999 for the version with a 1080p projector, $4,999 for the 720p version. Just as important, it's incredibly simple to install. The Ensemble HD Web site claims the system can be up and running in as little as 4 hours, but they lie - the two guys who installed mine did it in 3 hours flat. The crew told me they charge $500 for a standard installation and $1,000 if you want the cables run inside the wall and ceiling. (Of course, your installer's prices may vary.)

Ensemble HD is a complete home theater rig. Besides the video projector, it includes a 100-inch (diagonal) motorized screen; a 5.1-channel speaker system with 400 total watts of amplification (all amp channels are built into the subwoofer); an A/V controller that includes a surround processor, a DVD player, and an AM/FM tuner; and a few key accessories such as wire channels, a remote control, and a basic equipment rack.

Two strokes of industrial-design genius help to simplify the system. The first is that the front left, center, and right speakers are built into the housing for the screen. The second is that the projector mount holds the two surround speakers. The only thing that sits on the floor is the small gear rack, which can hold the subwoofer, the A/V controller, and one or two additional source components.

The projector is Epson's PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 UB, a $2,999 piece that's almost identical to the excellent PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080p I reviewed in July. The speakers were designed by Atlantic Technology, a company known for excellent, affordable home theater sound. The A/V controller is a more advanced version of a nice little unit Sherwood uses in some home-theater-in-a-box systems. (Despite the HD in its name, the Ensemble system doesn't offer Blu-ray Disc playback, although a separate player can be plugged into one of the A/V controller's two HDMI 1.3 inputs.)

The Ensemble HD looks good enough to earn an enthusiastic welcome even from your resident decor Nazi. The screen/front-speaker combo hangs inconspicuously from a wall; its simple, rounded design makes it resemble a European air conditioner. Sheets of white perforated metal swathe the projector and surround speakers. The one unsightly element is the equipment rack, which exudes a visual aesthetic that might affront even a Walmart executive.

SETUP

I loved the Ensemble HD's setup procedure, which required me to drink coffee and catch up on my e-mail while the installers did all the work.

First, they mounted a bracket for the screen/front-speaker module. Next, they mounted a bracket for the projector and surround speakers. Then the real work began: running the wires.

The wiring is complicated - after all, we're talking about separate cables for audio, video, control signals, and power - but it's streamlined enough to squeeze into slim, paintable on-wall cable channels. (It'll look even better, however, if your installer runs the wires inside your walls and ceiling.)

The universal remote control handles the audio system, the DVD player, and the projector - and you can turn all three on or off at the touch of a button. It can be programmed to operate additional components, too.

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