Epson PowerLite Cinema 550 LCD Projector

The power of love.

My love affair with front projection began one fateful day in 2002. My safe, usually reliable RPTV was away at the repair shop, so a coworker innocently introduced me to the PowerLite TW100 from Epson. It didn't take long for this fling to evolve into a full-blown romance. The TW100 fit so easily into my lifestyle. And that picture—it was so detailed, so noise free, and so. . .big.

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The TW100 was Epson's first home theater projector. It cost $4,999 and produced an attractive image, but its features and aesthetic still reflected the company's business roots. Epson has come a long way since then. Their latest entry to the PowerLite line, the $2,499 Cinema 550, is the complete home theater package. Underneath that sexier, more curvaceous body is a 720p LCD projector with HDMI connectivity, an auto iris, vertical and horizontal lens-shift options, and a ton of picture adjustments.

The Cinema 550 utilizes Epson's 3LCD technology, meaning there's a separate LCD panel for red, green, and blue. According to Epson's Website, 3LCD produces "a more detailed and accurate picture, smoother gradation, and excellent detail in dark areas." Love may be blind, but I try not to be. It was time to put those claims to the test.

"A More Detailed and Accurate Picture"
One of my first observations about the Cinema 550 was that the image seemed a little soft. I've spent the last few months evaluating 32-inch LCDs, so a 65-inch-plus front-projected image was bound to look softer by comparison. Still, resolution tests confirmed that the projector's detail is only average. It has ample resolution to render DVD detail, but HDTV doesn't quite come to life the way it can through a more detailed projector.

Epson has included almost every imaginable picture adjustment. In addition to the basic color, tint, brightness, and contrast settings, there are seven picture modes, advanced gamma and sharpness controls, skintone adjustment, incremental color-temperature settings from 5,000 to 10,000 Kelvin, and global red, green, and blue controls. Not only can you adjust each parameter for every input, there are nine memory settings. So, within each input, you can store different parameters depending on source or lighting condition.

Out of the box, the picture looked quite green, and the contrast was set very high through both the HDMI and component video inputs. The default color-temp setting is 6500 K, but I found that 6,000 K looked more accurate across the entire range in the darker picture modes.

In my home setup, I used the horizontal lens shift to move the picture to the right and center it on my screen. Using the abundant controls, I rendered a rich, vibrant image. I still felt that greens were a little oversaturated, but the skintone adjustment let me add some red to help balance it out. Perhaps this is why the picture seemed green in my home setup but measured better in our testing room.

306epson.2.jpgMeasuring a TV requires staring at a lot of stationary test patterns. As I did so at our testing studio, I could see a lack of color uniformity on the screen, something that's not easily discernible with moving images. The left side of the image clearly leaned toward red, while the right side leaned toward green.

"Smoother Gradation"
Absolutely. After all of the time I've spent with flat panels lately, I can't tell you how refreshing it was to put on Video Essentials' quantization ramp and see a smooth transition from light to dark, especially through the component video input. The HDMI input revealed some lines in the ramp but no large jumps. I thoroughly enjoyed how smooth and noise-free DVD and HDTV images were, thanks to Epson's Noise Shaped Video technology. I usually spend much of my evaluation time trying not to notice the digital noise that a display creates; with this projector, I often had to remind myself to look for it—and seldom found it.

"Excellent Detail in Dark Areas"
That depends on which picture mode you select and whether you opt to turn on the auto iris that adjusts light output according to the image. With the iris turned on, we measured the white and black levels for each mode. The Theatre mode produced the best black level and overall contrast ratio, an excellent 0.003 and 3,927:1, respectively. (That's better than the claimed spec, I might add.) The Dynamic mode had the highest black level but the best light output—about 29 foot-lamberts. That's really good by projector standards, but this mode sacrifices some color accuracy in exchange for that brightness. (Check our sidebar review to see how the Cinema 550 performed with Screen Innovations' new Viságe screen, designed to improve performance in a bright room.)

Fan noise is a minor issue. It's clearly audible in the brighter picture modes, especially in the Dynamic mode. I used the Cinema 550 as a tabletop projector, so I preferred the Theatre Black 2 mode. Its black level and contrast ratio were still quite good, but it produced less fan noise than the Theatre mode. Also, if you sit close to the projector in a quiet room, you can hear the auto iris making its adjustments. These issues won't be a concern if you're going to mount the projector on the ceiling or in a soundproof (but ventilated) box in a theater.

The Cinema 550 has both film and video processing modes. In the film mode, it picked up the 3:2 sequence quickly but struggled to hold it. With Gladiator, it produced a little flicker in rooftops but handled the scene well overall. Video-based signals didn't fare as well, regardless of whether I used the film or the video mode. I saw a lot of artifacts with both test discs and real-world DVD signals.

Pertinent Perks
The Cinema 550 scores well in the ergonomics department. The lens-shift options, manual zoom, keystone correction, and adjustable feet make it much easier to align the image with your screen. The remote is backlit and has dedicated input buttons; the inclusion of automatic aspect-ratio detection removes the need for dedicated aspect-ratio buttons. The menu is logically laid out and doesn't impede the setup process.

We recently received a review sample of NeuNeo's HVD2085 upconverting DVD player (see Geoffrey Morrison's review on our Website). The player caught our attention because it's region-free and allows you to upconvert the DVD signal to 1080p through both the HDMI and component video outputs. For fun, I connected it to the Cinema 550 to check out the performance. Much to my surprise, this $2,499 projector accepted the 1080p signal through HDMI—something that only one of the 1080p RPTVs in last month's Face Off could do, and that TV costs twice as much. No, this isn't a 1080p display. But the image quality on my 83-inch-wide Stewart Studiotek screen in a light-controlled room was really quite impressive, and detail seemed better than what I had with a basic 480i DVD player.

The TW100 and I have had a good run, but love—and home theater gear—must evolve.The Cinema 550 is younger, sexier, and better endowed with the features and connectivity my home theater needs. Call me fickle, but this HT gal is moving on.

Highlights
• An excellent black level and contrast ratio
• Ample adjustments to tailor the picture to your liking

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