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Hitachi HDPJ 52 LCD Projector

When I think of home theater video projectors Hitachi isn't the first brand that comes to mind. Hitachi is probably better known for microwaves, compact music systems, and other mass-market consumer electronics. When Tom Norton offered me the HDPJ52 LCD projector for review I wasn't expecting very much. Simply put, every LCD projector I've reviewed in the past has been fatally flawed by poor color, inadequate black levels, and less than optimal resolution. Why should Hitachi do any better with LCD projectors than other manufacturers? What I neglected to consider is that Hitachi not only makes its own LCD panels and most other major components, they have been manufacturing business and presentation projectors for years. I packed my preconceptions into a large box and put it in the garage. With a newly open mind I unpacked the Hitachi HDPJ52. Welcome to the bright new world of 21st century LCD projectors.

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Smaller than a Microwave
Installing the HDPJ52 projector took about 30 minutes from start to finish. First Chief Manufacturing's RPA ceiling mounting system with its interchangeable columns and multiple adjustments allowed me to mount and physically adjust the projector in less than ten minutes. Even though the HDPJ52 lacks a motorized focus or zoom, its vertical and horizontal lens shift capabilities more than make up for the omission. I was able to fine-tune the focus and image size on the screen as well as the lateral and vertical image placement in less time than it takes to read through an evening's offerings in TV Guide.

You can spend as much time fine-tuning the HDPJ52 as your patience permits. For image perfectionists Hitachi includes low, mid and high RGB gray scale adjustments and four separate memory banks to retain your custom settings. Hitachi also offers several internal test patterns with choices of nine grayscale steps, fifteen steps, or a continuous ramped grayscale. You can also adjust the gamma curve via a nine-step IRE level fine tuning menu. The HDPJ52's picture menu controls brightness, contrast, gamma, color temp, color, tint, and sharpness with several memory banks for saving your settings. As if all this weren't enough, Hitachi developed a dual-iris system. A motorized iris located inside the HDPJ52's ELD (extra low dispersion) Quatro lens can be manually adjusted to control the overall brightness, while a dynamic iris automatically adjusts for the overall brightness of individual scenes. This second iris has three settings, off, Auto-1 and Auto-2.

For folks who don't, won't or can't make sophisticated image adjustments Hitachi has an "easy menu." This one-page menu lets users adjust the aspect ratio, mode, auto iris, brightness, contrast, tint, sharpness, and language. For most day-to-day use this menu may be entirely sufficient, but naturally 'power users" will prefer the control offered by the HDPJ52's full array of menus.

The HDPJ52's remote is small but well designed. It lights up when you push the "light" button. Its shape allows you to tell up from down in the dark even before the buttons light up. The remote's layout also makes it easy to find the menu buttons. Hierarchies within each menu category are only two levels deep so they are easy to navigate. Often used adjustments even have their own buttons so you don't have to go into the menu. The remote's signal is strong enough and the HDPJ52's sensors are sensitive enough so that I had no trouble bouncing the remote's IR signals off the screen even during the brightest part of day. When I entered a command the HDPJ52 responded without hesitation.

Most of the time I used the HDPJ52 tethered to a Lumagen HDP image processor. Lumagen's Jim Peterson personally calibrated one of the two HDPJ 52 projectors I reviewed so it would produce an optimal image with the Lumagen processor. Any ISF certified calibrator with a proper color analyzer can do this.

When compared to a stock, uncalibrated sample the Lumagen-optimized HDPJ52 displayed much tighter gray-scale tracking. While an uncalibrated HDPJ52's gray scale went from 6050K to 6610K at its 6500K setting, the calibrated HDPJ52 varied from only 6440K to 6570. This demonstrates just how precisely this projector can be adjusted by a patient professional installer (also see "Testing and Calibration for more details).

Bigger than a Breadbox
After initial installation I spent many hours getting used to the HDPJ52 and fine-tuning it for optimum picture quality. You can get quite a decent picture straight out of the box after five minutes with Hitachi's easy menu adjustments, but if you have any video tweak proclivities you'll spend quite a bit of time perusing the main menu and trying out all the Hitachi's picture options. The gamma, gray scale, brightness, and contrast controls are all interactive, so adjusting one will often lead to readjusting the others as well. Fortunately you can save four complete sets of adjustments so you can compare and contrast your ability to get the perfect setting or develop set-ups for four different ambient light conditions. I have saved settings for daylight, nighttime with lights on, nighttime movie, and nighttime HDTV.

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Hitachi's dual iris system sounds great on paper and in reality works relatively well. I found that with the auto iris turned off the projector doesn't deliver quite as good a black level as when it's set to Auto-1. But there is a trade off: sometimes I could see the iris making adjustments when a dark scene rapidly cut to a brightly lit scene. The Auto-2 setting should be avoided at all times. Its corrections are not only excessive, but also too slow to be anything but irritating. But with Auto-1 the advantages of better blacks and a more extended contrast range (as well as a slightly better depth of field due to the lens being stopped down) make it a feature worth using.

The manual iris adjustment rocks. With it you can control overall light output. This gives the Hitachi flexibility to work in multi-function rooms subject to widely varying ambient light levels. I found that in the evening I preferred the iris set to 4 or 5, while under daylight conditions I goosed it up 7 or 8. This feature makes the Hitachi HDPJ52 usable in environments where non-adjustable projectors won't cut it. Combined with the Screen Innovations Visage screen the Hitachi delivered a picture that had good color, brightness, and contrast in a room where ambient light prevented me from using a front-firing projector successfully before.

Faster than a Speeding Bullet
So what do you like to hear first, the good news or bad news? I usually start reviews with good news and work my way into the bad stuff later on. The bad news – the HDPJ52's blacks are not as good as you can expect from a CRT or a single chip DLP. But just because the blacks are only dark charcoal gray doesn't mean the shadow detail isn't there. It is. Even on really tough material like the high-definition Universal HD broadcasts of Battlestar Galactica the HDPJ52 can deliver extraordinary low-level detail and definition.

506hitachi.3.jpgWant more bad news? The HDPJ52 picture isn't quite as creamy smooth and noise-free as either the Optoma HD79 or HD7100. The Hitachi has a certain amount of background "grain" not dissimilar to what audiophiles hear when they listen to a solid-state power amplifier as compared to a tube amp. Instead of seamlessness or nothingness you'll notice a very slight texture. This translates to the HDPJ52 not disappearing as well as the two Optoma projectors. Also it never creates the same sense of depth from HD sources. Discovery HD runs its Sunrise Planet Earth promo regularly enough that I've come to use it as reference. Planet Earth's landscapes never have the same feeling of space and three-dimensionality through the Hitachi as with the Optoma DLP units.

LCD projectors have a reputation for problems with dust getting onto the panels and causing spots. Initially the HDPJ52 had no dust problems but after the second filter cleaning, performed every 100 hours, I noticed some dust spots that I could not blow out with canned air. Hitachi will clean out dust under warranty if this occurs, but you will be without a projector for at least a week.

Now, for some good stuff. The HDPJ52 ranks as the quietest projector I've ever had the pleasure to share a room with. This thing is so quiet that even when it was set up only a couple of feet over my head I hardly noticed its presence. When I substituted the quiet-for-its-type Optoma H79 I was shocked at how much noisier it was. The Hitachi is so quiet that even with my super sensitive B&K noise meter I couldn't see any change in measurements of the base level of room noise at listening position when I turned it on. Audiophiles who enjoy music and performance DVDs, especially classical and opera with their wide swings from silence to bombast, will simply adore the HDPJ52's lack of rattle, hum, and whir.

Up until the HDPJ52 I never believed that an LCD projector could get anything close to accurate color or neutral gray scale. The HDPJ52 not only gets close, it reproduces color more accurately than most projectors I've reviewed in the past, regardless of their display technology. Even without calibration, right out of the box the Hitachi's color palette was surprisingly neutral with no Astroturf greens or glowing reds. Besides an accurate color palette the HDPJ52 also has no traces of weird color shifts anywhere in the frame.

The HDPJ52 produces a very sharp picture that certainly rivals any 720P DLP projector I've reviewed. When you stop down the manual lens iris below 7 it acts just like an iris in a camera lens to increase the depth of focus. This insures the image will be sharp everywhere. Unlike some projectors, especially CRTs, where the center is much sharper than the edges, the Hitachi's image is equally sharp from edge to edge.

Fresher than a Daisy
Although the HDPJ52 lists for $3995, it can be found on the Internet for far less. When combined with a DNP or Screen Innovations Visage screen the HDPJ52 can be placed in environments where a plasma or LCD flat-screen display used to be the only option. With the HDPJ52 you can have a bigger and more adaptable image for less money.

The Hitachi HDPJ52 ranks as the first LCD projector I've seen that delivers a picture good enough to live with. As a matter of fact I plan to replace my 12-year-old Proton 331 direct-view CRT with the HDPJ52. When you combine its picture quality with its ergonomic ease, excellent calibration features, and extremely low level of physical noise, you have a projector that substantially raises the bar on what you should expect from a modestly priced home theater projector. Bravo.

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